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Monday, June 1, 2009

Americans Don't Like to Challenge Their Views

People with stronger party affiliation and conservative political views are more likely to read media messages that present viewpoints that challenge or contradict their own, according to a new study in the journal Communication Research. “It appears that people with these characteristics are more confident in their views and so they’re more inclined to at least take a quick look at the counterarguments,” notes Ohio State University communication professor Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, who worked on the study. But, she adds, “they’re not looking for insights that might change their mind.”
Overall, Americans spend 36 percent more time reading articles that reinforce their point of view than reading articles that challenge their viewpoint, the researchers found. When we do read articles that challenge our preexisting views, we almost always balance that with reading articles whose messages support our opinions. In general, we don't want our views “to be challenged by seriously considering other viewpoints," Knobloch-Westerwick says.
When volunteers were given five minutes to read an online magazine that had pro and con articles on four hot-button topics (gun ownership, abortion, health-care regulation, and minimum wage), most of them chose to read only articles that agreed with their current beliefs. While some volunteers read articles from both perspectives on an issue, very few people read only articles that challenged their opinions.
What does this mean for the escalating culture war between science and faith? If people choose to read and listen only to messages they already agree with—which often contain rhetoric that's hostile toward the other side— it can make them more extreme in their viewpoints, Knobloch-Westerwick says, and make tolerance and compromise less likely. “Citizens really should be weighing and monitoring diverse arguments in order to make informed decisions," she says. "Unfortunately, that’s not happening as often as it should." —Heather Wax