Selective Exposure Essay

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The study of selective exposure seeks to understand how and why people consume particular communication content when faced with a constellation of choices. Broadly defined, selective exposure refers to behaviors that are deliberately performed in an effort to bring communication content within reach of one’s sensory apparatus (Zillmann & Bryant 1985).

Cognitive Dissonance

By the conclusion of World War II, propaganda researchers had long noted that people avoided messages that conflicted with their opinions, and even interpreted those messages differently. The idea that media functions to reinforce existing beliefs and conditions is formalized in Festinger’s (1957) influential  cognitive dissonance theory. Festinger proposed that selectivity is motivated by dissonance reduction and characterized by avoidance of information inconsistent with one’s beliefs and attitudes, and pursuit of messages that are consistent with those cognitions. Field studies generally supported the theory, but laboratory experiments were inconclusive because of methodological shortcomings of early experiments.

In recent years, psychologists have introduced new explanations for why dissonance occurs, including threats to positive self-image, and personal behavior that is inconsistent with normative standards. Although scholars are still divided on this issue, it is clear that the inclusion of such moderating variables in experimental designs has confirmed the viability of cognitive dissonance theory as an explanation for selective exposure. Indeed, a recent meta-analysis along with current studies that account for the moderating effect of self-esteem, attitude strength, information quantity, and other such variables have revealed relatively strong support for the theory’s assumptions.

Communication research in consumer behavior, journalism, and health communication centers on the demonstration of selectivity as a result of dissonance reduction. Communication scholars, however, have generally failed to consider whether individuals in a state of consonance will display selective avoidance. Donsbach (2009) argues that this is an important issue, given that media exposure often occurs under conditions of consonance.

Emotion, Mood, And Selective Exposure

A large body of literature has accumulated that confirms that emotion and mood play an integral role in media choices. Much of this research is based on the affectdependent theory of stimulus arrangement (Zillmann & Bryant 1985). Founded on the premise that individuals are motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain, this theory recognizes that individuals often use media as a means to achieve this goal even though they may not always be aware of the motivating role of their own moods. Rather, through classical and operant conditioning, individuals learn which types of stimuli are best suited to alleviate or maintain particular moods.

Particularly strong, supportive evidence for the theory originated in studies that investigated correlations between mood shifts associated with pregnancy and menstrual cycles and preferences for certain media content (e.g., Meadowcroft & Zillmann 1987). Experimental and survey research has shown that media may be used to alleviate boredom, stress, apprehension, annoyance, and depression. Research also supports the prediction that good moods can be maintained or enhanced by consumption of media messages that are minimally involving, have a high behavioral affinity to positive mood, or are highly pleasant (e.g., Knobloch & Zillmann 2002). However, recent scholarship suggests that positive moods result in selection of media that matches, rather than enhances a positive affective state.

Selective exposure theory makes predictions about mood and media preferences based on the combination of four key variables: excitatory homeostasis, intervention potential, messagebehavioral affinity, and hedonic valence. Although theoretically distinct, overlap exists between these four variables in practice. (1) Excitatory homeostasis refers to the human tendency to seek out states of psychological arousal that are neither over- nor under-stimulating (Bryant & Zillmann 1984). (2) Message-behavioral affinity refers to the degree of similarity between communication content and affective state. (3) The ability of media content to engage cognitive processing resources and disrupt mental rehearsal of thoughts related to specific moods is referred to as its ‘intervention potential’ (or ‘absorption potential/capacity’). (4) Hedonic valence refers to the negative or positive quality of a message.

Zillmann (2000) introduced the notions of spontaneous and telic hedonism to account for selection of counter-hedonistic media fare. He argued that at times it may be emotionally functional to engage in spontaneous hedonism by selecting media that immediately relieves one of negative feelings. However, individuals may also postpone the immediate gratification of altering their mood state, in favor of loftier goals, or more pressing needs. In such cases media use may be counter-hedonistic in the short run, but conform to theoretical assumptions in the long run.

Seemingly counter-hedonistic media preferences, such as viewing a sad film, reflect so-called eudaimonic, or ’truth-seeking,’ concerns (e.g., Oliver & Raney 2011). This line of inquiry shows how hedonic and eudaimonic motivations vary according to their interaction with message characteristics, one’s stage in the life span, or gender. Recent studies have begun to apply the theory to new interactive media, such as the Internet and  video games. Scholars in this area have observed that mood repair through the satisfaction of intrinsic needs is an additional mechanism of mood management (Reinecke et al. 2012).

Informational Utility

The concept of  informational utility refers to situations where information is sought out to reduce uncertainty. Whereas the hedonistic assumptions of mood management are particularly suited for explaining consumption of entertainment media, these assumptions may have less application in cases where media use is motivated by a need or desire for information. Selective exposure to communication that is motivated by informational utility is conceptually distinct from selective exposure behavior designed to reinforce pre-existing beliefs or conditions (as in cognitive dissonance theory).

 In recent years, informational utility has been studied in the context of a model developed by Knobloch-Westerwick and colleagues. This 566 selective exposure model assumes that information has utility to the degree individuals perceive that it represents a threat or opportunity, the likelihood such threats or opportunities will materialize, the immediacy of materialization, and one’s perceived self-efficacy to influence them. Tests of this model have produced supportive evidence of selective exposure to online news and political information.


  1. Bryant, J. & Zillmann, D. (1984). Using television to alleviate boredom and stress: Selective exposure as a function of induced excitational states. Journal of Broadcasting, 28, 1–20.
  2. Donsbach, W. (2009). Cognitive dissonance theory – a roller coaster career. How communication research adapted the theory of cognitive dissonance. In T. Hartmann (ed.), Media choice: A theoretical and empirical overview. London: Routledge, pp. 128–149.
  3. Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row and Peterson.
  4. Knobloch, S. & Zillmann, D. (2002). Mood management via the digital jukebox. Journal of Communication, 52, 351–366.
  5. Knobloch-Westerwick, S., Carpentier, F. D., Blumhoff, A., & Nickel, N. (2005). Selective exposure effects for positive and negative news: Testing the robustness of the informational utility model. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 82(1), 181–195.
  6. Knobloch-Westerwick, S. & Johnson, B. (2014). Selective exposure for better or worse: Its mediating role for online news’ impact on political participation. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 19(2), 184–196.
  7. Meadowcroft, J. M. & Zillmann, D. (1987). Women’s comedy preferences during the menstrual cycle. Communication Research, 14, 204–218.
  8. Oliver, M. B. & Raney, A. A. (2011). Entertainment as pleasurable and meaningful: Identifying hedonic and eudaimonic motivations for entertainment consumption. Journal of Communication, 61(5), 984–1004.
  9. Reinecke, L., Tamborini, R., Grizzard, M., Lewis, R., Eden, A., & David Bowman, N. (2012). Characterizing mood management as need satisfaction: The effects of intrinsic needs on selective exposure and mood repair. Journal of Communication, 62(3), 437–453.
  10. Zillmann, D. (2000). Mood management in the context of selective exposure theory. In M. E. Roloff (ed.), Communication yearbook 23. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 103–123.
  11. Zillmann, D. & Bryant, J. (eds.) (1985). Selective exposure to communication. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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