NEWS29 October 2015

The continuing rise of super-selectivism

Media News Public Sector UK

UK — The combination of scepticism, marketing savvy and online filtering has fed the continuing rise of super-selectivism, says Ben Shimshon of Britain Thinks.


Super-selectivism is a form of confirmation bias “on steroids” says Shimshon – confirmation bias describes the tendency to search for, interpret, prefer and recall information in a way that confirms one’s existing beliefs.

Speaking at the Market Research Society (MRS) Customers Exposed conference in London today, Shimshon described a piece of work that Britain Thinks had done in conjunction with The Guardian around the time of the UK’s General Election. 60 participants were asked to send daily diaries from their mobile phones of messages they had heard from the media and other sources from the different parties. Rather than seeing a reflection of the varied messages that were being communicated, analysis showed that what participants fed back were almost exclusively in line with their existing affiliations.

Shimshon claimed that this super-selectivism was driven by a combination of a rise in scepticism and marketing savvy, combined with the ability of online technology to filter information according to our interests and previous behaviour. There are three stages that can be affected: seeking out and selecting information, interpreting it, and remembering it, he says. In seeking out information, time-poor people will often take cues from ‘elites’, that is, high profile people or those that are seen to be thought leaders. This can lead to a greater polarisation in beliefs as the views of these ‘elites’ diverge, he explained.

To illustrate the effect of confirmation bias on interpretation of information, Shimshon referred to the work of Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale University. Kahan gave study participants, of varying levels of numeracy, statistical information on the efficacy of a face cream, and found that those who were more numerate came to the correct conclusion on whether the cream was worth using than those who struggled with maths. When precisely the same statistics were used to illustrate the effect of gun control legislation, the ability to correctly interpret the statistics was directly affected by participants’ political leanings: people became less rational and able to compute when the evidence contradicted their existing views.

Shimshon also used a scientific example from Schwarz, who looked into the recall of messages surrounding vaccinations, to illustrate the effect that existing beliefs can have on recall of messages – people are more likely to falsely recall messages if the original message was not in line with their existing beliefs. This effect increases over time.

Putting behavioural biases aside, the fact that, as Shimshon said, “we only see a tiny corner of the internet” also adds to the growing problem for communicators. He gave an example of two Twitter feeds — of a Jeremy Corbyn supporter and a non-Corbyn supporter — from the same time period, after searching for references to Corbyn, to show how different the messages we are exposed to can be, depending on our affiliations. The supporter saw exclusively positive messages, the detractor exclusively negative.

To combat the effects of super-selectivism, said Shimshon, it’s vital to start early with messaging as it is very difficult to contradict views once they become ingrained. It’s also important to identify and understand your ‘swing voters’, he says, in order to stand the best chance of reaching the people whose opinions are most open to change. Lastly, says Shimshon, you must “start from where people are, not where you wish they were”.

1 Comment

8 years ago

Now apply this knowledge to survey research. What do people say they remember about ads and commercials? Those things that match their own beliefs. It's not necessarily that people remember the parts of ads that were more clearly communicated, but rather the parts of ads that better match their beliefs. Interesting.

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