Author: James Cragun
Journal: Political Behavior
When seeking political information, people are motivated to selectively seek information that is congruent with their prior attitudes. However, some individuals may do so more than others, and not much is known about what factors affect such individual differences. Rigid religious faith is one variable that may promote selective exposure. Messages of the importance of rigid faith --- the idea that religious beliefs must be held firmly and not doubted --- could encourage a habit of selective exposure to information that supports existing religious beliefs. As a side effect, this habit of selective exposure might be applied outside the context of religion. In this study, an information-search task on a non-religious political issue is used to demonstrate that subjects prefer to read a greater number of arguments that are congruent with their prior attitudes on the issue, and this effect of prior attitudes on information-search behavior is found to be stronger among individuals who have rigid religious convictions. A scrambled-sentence task is used to prime half the subjects with religious concepts prior to completing the information-search task. This experiment demonstrates that increased salience of religious faith causes an increase in selective exposure to attitude-congruent political information.
Author's accepted manuscript (post-peer-review, pre-copyedit version): Cragun_religious_selective_exposure.pdf
Published version: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11109-020-09650-1
Complimentary shared access to published version (no downloading or printing): https://rdcu.be/b8jHF
Recoded data: data_cragun_religious_selective_exposure.csv
Replication code: replication_code_cragun_religious_selective_exposure.R
When people consume political information, they tend to selectively seek information that will support their prior attitudes and beliefs rather than information that will challenge them. For example, in the United States, Democrats prefer to watch MSNBC, while Republicans like to watch Fox. People who support gun-control policies like to read arguments that support gun control, while people who are against gun control like to read anti-gun-control arguments.
However, some people may do this more than others. Among two people who have equally strong opinions on a given issue, one person might choose to read things that are congruent with their attitude on that issue and avoid incongruent information, while the other person might seek information equally from both sides of the issue. Why is that? What could make one individual more likely than another to selectively seek attitude-congruent information?
There are probably many variables in a person’s life that could lead to stronger or weaker habits of seeking attitude-congruent information. One such variable might be religious faith. Some religions teach that maintaining one’s beliefs is virtuous and is even essential for gaining eternal rewards. Because of this, believers should be motivated to do things that will strengthen their existing religious beliefs. This could lead some religious believers to habits of selectively consuming information that will strengthen their beliefs and avoiding content that might challenge their beliefs. Though this habit may be developed in the context of religious beliefs, it could easily become a more general habit of seeking attitude-congruent information in other contexts, such as when seeking information on non-religious political issues.
I tested this idea by having research subjects complete an information-search task on the topic of gun control. Subjects were given access to a list of pro-gun-control and anti-gun-control arguments, and I observed how many arguments they chose to read from each side of the issue. I found that subjects who had come into the study with more pro-gun-control attitudes chose to read more pro-gun-control arguments rather than anti-gun-control arguments, and subjects with more anti-gun-control attitudes read more anti-gun-control arguments rather than pro-gun-control arguments. However, among subjects who said they believe strongly in the importance of rigid religious faith, this pattern was even stronger. In other words, people who have firm religious convictions showed a stronger tendency to selectively read arguments that support their prior opinions even in the context of a non-religious political issue like gun control.
This shows that, at least in this particular information-search task, the tendency to seek information that is congruent with one's prior attitudes is correlated with rigid religious conviction. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean having rigid religious faith makes people more likely to seek attitude-congruent information. Rather, it could be that a tendency to seek attitude-congruent information might make people more likely to hold strong religious convictions. Or there could be some other variable that affects both these things and is thus responsible for the correlation between them.
To test whether religious faith directly affects political information-seeking behavior, I also included a randomized experimental treatment in the study. Immediately prior to the information-search task, the subjects completed a simple puzzle task in which they were instructed to unscramble sets of words to form sentences. For half of the participants, some of these sentences included words relating to religion (spirit, divine, faith, god, sacred, sermon). The other participants completed a similar task that did not include religious words. The purpose of this was to increase the salience of religion in the minds of half of the participants. This allowed me to see whether thinking of religious faith would produce different behaviors when seeking political information. It did. The tendency for pro-gun-control people to read pro-gun-control arguments (and for anti-gun-control people to read anti-gun-control arguments) was stronger among those who had been primed to think of religion. In other words, thoughts of religious faith increase the tendency to seek information that supports one’s prior opinions, even in the context of a non-religious political issue.
The results of this study do not mean that all religious people will have a greater tendency to read things that support their prior opinions. This study focused on one specific aspect of religiosity: rigid religious conviction. People who are frequently exposed to the message that religious convictions should be held firmly and not doubted (and who accept that message) are likely to exhibit a tendency to selectively seek attitude-congruent political information, but there may be some religious people who reject the importance of rigid faith and who are open to changes in their religious beliefs.
Even when focusing specifically on rigid religious conviction, there were some individuals in the study who had rigid religious convictions but did not exhibit any tendency to seek attitude-congruent political information, and there were some non-religious individuals who had a strong preference for reading congruent information. As in most social-science research, the results should be interpreted only in terms of averages. Though religious faith does not all explain all (nor even most) of the variation between individuals, rigid religious faith tends to produce, on average, a stronger tendency to seek information that supports one’s prior attitudes.