Selective Exposure Theory


The selective exposure theory is a concept in media and communication research that refers to individuals’ tendency to favor information that reinforces pre-existing views while avoiding contradictory information. In this theory people tend to select specific aspects of exposed information based on their perspective, beliefs, attitudes and decisions. People can determine the information exposed to them and select favorable evidence, while ignoring the unfavorable. This theory has been explored using the cognitive dissonance theory, which suggests information consumers strive for results of cognitive equilibrium. In order to attain this equilibrium, individuals may either reinterpret the information they are exposed to or select information that are consonant with their view.

The premise of selective exposure relies on the assumption that information-seeking behavior continues even after an individual has taken a stance on an issue. Previous information-seeking behavior will be colored by various factors of the issue that is activated during the decision-making process.[1] Thus, selective exposure operates by reinforcing beliefs rather than exposing individuals to a diverse array of viewpoints, which is considered an important aspect of a functioning democracy.[2] There are several factors that persuade one's when making decisions. Physical characteristics, age, and more explain one's personal attributes that hold power when one participants in selective exposure. Furthermore, because information and resources are critical to learning, people decide to stray away from new information because it often conflicts with their own beliefs. Selective exposure influences and engages family, friends, co-workers, and doctors. Media forms such as the internet, television and paper sources are also highly influenced.[3]

Selective exposure has been displayed in various contexts such as self-serving situations and situations where people hold prejudices regarding out-groups, particular opinions, and personal and group-related issues.[4] Perceived usefulness of information, perceived norm of fairness, and curiosity of valuable information are three factors that can counteract selective exposure.[5]

Effect on decision-making

Individual versus group decision-making

Selective exposure can affect the decisions people make because people may not be willing to change their views and beliefs. Changing beliefs about one's self, other people, and the world are three variables to why people fear new information.[6] A variety of studies has shown that selective exposure effects can occur in context of both individual and group decision making.[7] Numerous situational variables have been identified that increase the tendency toward selective exposure.[8] Social psychology, specifically, includes research with a variety of situational factors and related psychological processes that eventually persuade the efforts to make a quality decision. Additionally, from a psychological perspective, the effects of selective exposure can both stem from motivational and cognitive accounts.[9] Schulz et al. (2010) investigated whether information searches were determined by subjectively perceived information. More specifically, they studied whether the subject receiving the information and those who made the decisions were persuaded by the subject who provided the information to them. From a cognitive perspective, researchers assume that decision makers seek to find the qualitatively best pieces of decision-relevant information, like appearance. Because decision makers are not able to evaluate the information quality independent of their own position, decision-inconsistent information is systematically tested more critically than decision-consistent information.[10] Therefore, decision-consistent information receives a subjectively perceived quality advantage and is thus preferred over inconsistent information.

Selective exposure enables prevention of gathering new information. Selective exposure is prevalent in both groups of people and individually. In Jonas et al. (2001) empirical studies were done on four different experiments investigating individuals' and groups' decision making. This article suggests that confirmation bias is prevalent in decision making. Those who find new information often draw their attention to areas where they hold personal attachment too. Thus, information with similar expectations or beliefs to the person is a result of this selective exposure theory. Throughout the four experiments done generalization is always considered valid and confirmation bias is always present when seeking new information and making decisions.[11]

Accuracy motivation and defense motivation

Fischer and Greitemeyer (2010) explored individuals’ decision making in terms of selective exposure to confirmatory information.[12] Selective exposure posed that people make their decisions based on information that is consistent with their decision rather than information that is inconsistent with their decision. Researchers explain that people have the tendency to seek and select information using their integrative model. There are two primary motivation for selective exposure: accuracy motivation and defense motivation. Accuracy motivation explains that one is motivated to be accurate in their decision making and defense motivation explains that one seeks confirmatory information to confirm their beliefs and justify their decisions. Accuracy motivation is not always beneficial during selective exposure and can instead be counterintuitive, increasing the amount of selective exposure. Defense motivation can lead to reduced levels of selective exposure.[13]

Personal attributes

Selective exposure avoids information inconsistent with one’s beliefs and attitudes. How decisions are made and how relevant information is gathered, are not the only two factors taken into account when making a final decision. Fischer et al. (2010) found it important to consider the information source itself, otherwise explained as the physical being that provided the source of information.[14] Selective exposure research generally neglects the influence of indirect decision-related attributes, such as physical appearance. In Fischer et al. (2010) two studies hypothesized that physically attractive information sources resulted in decision makers to be more selective in searching and reviewing decision-relevant information. Researchers explored the impact of social information and its level of physical attractiveness. The data was then analyzed and found that selective exposure existed for those who needed to make a decision.[15] Therefore, the more attractive an information source was, the more positive and detailed one was with making their decision because factors like one's attractiveness was considered. Physical attractiveness affects one's decision because it increases the perceived quality of information. Physically attractive information sources increased the quality of consistent information needed to make decisions and increased the selective exposure in decision-relevant information, supporting the researchers hypothesis.[16] Both studies concluded that attractiveness is driven by a different selection and evaluation of decision-consistent information. Decision makers allow factors like physical attractiveness affect everyday decisions because of selective exposure.

In another study, selective exposure is defined by the amount of confidence an individual has. People, whether they have a low self-esteem or high self-esteem, are still able to control the amount of selective exposure. Individuals who maintain higher confidence levels reduce the amount of selective exposure.[17] Albarracín and Mitchell (2004) hypothesized that those who displayed higher confidence levels were more willing to seek out information both consistent and inconsistent with their views. The phrase "decision-consistent information" explains the tendency to actively seek decision-relevant information. Selective exposure occurs when individuals search for information and show systematic preferences towards ideas that are consistent, rather than inconsistent, to their beliefs.[18] On the contrary, those who exhibited low levels of confidence were more inclined to examine information that did not agree with their views. The researchers found that in three out of five studies participants showed more confidence and scored high on the Defensive Confidence Scale,[19] meaning that their hypothesis was correct.

Bozo et al. (2009) investigated the anxiety of fearing death and compared it to age in relation to health-promoting behaviors. Researchers analyzed data using the terror management theory. Results found that age had no direct effect to specific behaviors. They found anxiety of death yielding health-promoting behaviors in young adults. When people are reminded of their own death, it causes stress and anxiety, but eventually leads to positive changes in their health behaviors. Conclusions supported that older adults were consistently better at promoting and practicing good health behaviors, without thinking about death, compared to young adults.[20] Young adults were less motivated to change and practice health-promoting behaviors because they used the selective exposure to confirm their prior beliefs. Selective exposure creates barriers between the behaviors in different ages, but there is no specific age in which people change their behaviors.

Cognitive dissonance theory

Much empirical data on selective exposure has been based on the cognitive dissonance theory. These theories suggest that when people make decisions they then perceive an apathetic motivational state because they must accept the disadvantages of their choice.[21] Theories related to cognitive dissonance suggest that individuals strive for cognitive equilibrium and consistency. When they encounter information that is discordant with their pre-existing views, individuals experience an unfavorable psychological state of dissonance, which they are motivated to alleviate. These hypotheses were first proposed by Festinger (1957) and can be summarized with the following basic hypotheses:

  • Dissonance is a state of mental unease and discomfort which helps explain selective perception. It is produced when new information contradicts existing beliefs, attitudes, social norms, or behaviors.
  • People often favor consonance because their ideas flow freely into one another and do not create an unbalance.[22]
  • The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce dissonance and achieve consonance.
  • When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information that would likely increase the dissonance.[23]

In Festinger’s theory, the motivation to alleviate dissonance by seeking out information that is concordant with one’s existing beliefs is the motive for selective exposure. However, subsequent research on selective exposure within dissonance theory produced weak empirical support, until dissonance theory was revised and methods conducive to measuring selective exposure were improved.[24] To date, scholars still argue that empirical results supporting the selective exposure hypothesis are still mixed, possibly due to the issues used in experimental studies[25] or the failure to simulate an authentic media environment in experiments.[26]

One way to avoid dissonance is to selectively expose oneself to information they believe and avoid finding a contradicting element. Selective exposure has been shown to be caused by the need for self-enhancement and consistency in one's decisions. People want to defend a position because they have a commitment to their beliefs and want to reduce cognitive dissonance. Additionally, people want to maintain a positive self-image by being good decision makers.[27]

Klapper's selective exposure

Joseph Klapper (1960) asserts that mass communication does not directly influence people, but just reinforces people’s predispositions. Mass communications play a role as a mediator in persuasive communication. The following are Klapper's five mediating factors and conditions to affect people:

  • Predispositions and the related processes of selective exposure, selective perception, and selective retention.
  • The groups, and the norms of groups, to which the audience members belong.
  • Interpersonal dissemination of the content of communication
  • The exercise of opinion leadership
  • The nature of mass media in a free enterprise society.[28]

Three basic concepts:

  • Selective exposure – people keep away from communication of opposite hue.
  • Selective perception – If people are confronting unsympathetic material, they do not perceive it, or make it fit for their existing opinion.
  • Selective retention – Furthermore, they just simply forget the unsympathetic material.

Groups and group norms work as mediators. For example, one can be strongly disinclined to change to the Democratic Party if their family has voted Republican for a long time. In this case, the person’s predisposition to the political party is already set, so they don't perceive information about Democratic Party or change voting behavior because of mass communication. Klapper’s third assumption is inter-personal dissemination of mass communication. If someone is already exposed by close friends, which creates predisposition toward something, it will lead to an increase in exposure to mass communication and eventually reinforce the existing opinion. An opinion leader is also a crucial factor to form one's predisposition and can lead someone to be exposed by mass communication. The nature of commercial mass media also leads people to select certain types of media contents.


Recent studies have shown more relevant empirical evidence for the prevalence of selective exposure. Some researchers suggest that consumers now hold more influence over the information provided to them by the media. Consumers many tend to select content that exposes and confirms their own ideas while avoiding information that argues against their opinion. Studies suggest that media offers a diverse set of views. For example, politics are more likely to inspire selective exposure among consumers as opposed to singe exposure decisions.[29] In one study, different types of media are compared and evaluated to see which type ignites the most selective exposure. Due to the modern media atmosphere, people are now able to engage with or avoid the information that is presented to them to its fullest extent. With that said, this does not conclude that people will automatically seek out congenial media. Four different types of media were investigated in this study: newspapers, political talk radio, cable news, and political websites.[30] Results showed that newspapers had less of an influence compared to cable news. Evidence clearly shows that people's political predispositions motivate their types of media selections.

In early research, selective exposure originally provided an explanation for limited media effects. The "limited effects" model of communication emerged in the 1940s with a shift in the media effects paradigm. This shift suggested that while the media has effects, for example on voting behavior, these effects are limited and influenced indirectly by interpersonal discussions and the influence of opinion leaders. Selective exposure was considered one necessary function in early studies of media’s limited power over citizens’ attitudes and behaviors.[31] Political ads deal with selective exposure because people are more likely to favor a politician that agrees with their own beliefs. Voters tend to read more about their preferred political candidate than an opponent. Specifically, in Berelson and Steiner (1964), both stated that people tend to hear and see information favorable to their predispositions, thus they are more likely to hear and see congenial information rather than neutral resources.[32] Stroud (2010) analyzes partisan selective exposure and political polarization. Using data from the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey, analysts found that over time partisan selective exposure leads to polarization. Variables such as media and normative implications play a large role in the affects of this comparison. Selective exposure explains why media effects limit the influence on people's individual beliefs. Specifically, congenial media exposure significantly contributes to the increase of polarization in one's decisions. Through single-exposure results this article proposes that higher levels of polarization stem from partisan selective exposure. Additionally, this study investigated the causal direction of the relationship leading to congenial media exposure which increased polarization.[33]

Relation of C.S. Herrman's exposure theory

Selective exposure refers to the choice of an information source that could potentially confirm that the option one prefers is the best alternative because it agrees with their own beliefs.

Basic assumptions of Herrman's theory:

  • Exposure is a state of protected or unprotected risk or danger;
  • Exposure can be positive (adaptive) or negative (maladaptive)
  • Protected exposure presupposes the use of identification or projection to permit the feeling of security or safety despite the reality of risk or danger
  • Unprotected exposure is a state of risk or danger without the availability of identification or projection to obviate feelings producing maladaptive paralysis

Application to Selective exposure processes:

  • People desire protected exposure, so desire to identify with what induces such, for example, favored opinions
  • People desire to avoid unprotected exposure, so attempt to project away from a possible identification with undesirable triggers/stimuli, thus away from undesirable ideas or ideologies


This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.