Communications Theory

Survey of Broadcasting: Assignment 2: Question 6. Describe and define one theory about media impact.

Posted on June 30, 2011. Filed under: Broadcasting, Communications, Communications Theory, Mass Communications, Mass Media, Media Effects, Public Relations | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Three theories concerning the effects or impact of mass media have evolved over time:

  1. Hypodermic Needle Theory: an early theory that posits that mass communications messages would have a strong and predictable effect on an audience member. The theory held that all people would more or less have the same reaction to a mass communication message.
  2. Limited-Effects Theory: a latter theory that posits that media have few direct and meaningful effects on the audience because of a variety of intervening variables. A mass communication message would have little impact.
  3. Specific-Effects Theory: a recent theory that posits that there are certain circumstances under which some types of media will have a significant effect on some audience members.

The hypodermic needle theory was given much credence due to the apparent success of propaganda before and after World War I and the fact that many people believed the radio show War of the Worlds was in fact reality and the success of Dr. Brinkley’s radio show selling patent medicines and cures for various aliments.

However, by the mid-1940s the hypodermic needle theory’s assumptions were called into question by experimental and survey  research.

The limited effects theory focused on persuasion and political campaigns.  Mass communication messages first influenced people known as opinion leaders and then flowed on to the rest of the audience. Research posited that media’s influenced people known as opinion leaders and then flowed on to the rest of the audience.

Research posited that media’s influence or impact was first filtered through a strainer of intervening variables, such as a person’s knowledge and beliefs and the influence of family, friends and peer groups.  According to the limited effects theory, mass communications are simply one of many determinants of how an individual behaves.

Joseph Klapper’s book The Effects of Mass Communication summarizes the existing research with the generalization that mass communications does not ordinarily cause audience effects but instead functions primarily to reinforce existing conditions.

Klapper also noted that there are occasions when mass communications could exert a direct effect and where mediating factors reinforce change or when  mediating  factors are absent.

The mediating factors include the following:

  1. The exercise of opinion leadership
  2. The norms of groups to which the audience members belong
  3. The nature of mass media in a free enterprise economy
  4. Interpersonal dissemination of the content of communication
  5. Predispositions and the related processes of selective exposure and selective perception and retention.

Klapper considered that the two main intervening or mediating factors were selective exposure or people’s tendency to expose themselves to those mass communications which are in agreement with their attitudes and interests and 
selective perception and retention or people’s inclination to organize the meaning of mass communication messages in accordance with their already existing views.

Most recent research on the impact or effects of mass communications tends to support the specific effects theory. Mass-media communications must compete with many other sources of influence such as family, friends, teachers, ministers and many others.

However, there are circumstances where specific types of media content may have a significant effect on a portion of the audience.

Harold Lasswell described the formula as follows:

“Who (says) What (to) Whom (in) What Channel (with) What Effect.?”

Bernard Berelson succinctly summarizes the specific-effects theory of communication:

 “Some kinds of communication, on some kinds of issues, brought to the attention of some kinds of people, under some kinds of conditions, have some kinds of effects.”

Background Articles and Videos

Mass Communication : The Hypodermic Theory of Mass Communication

Mass Communication : Why Is Persuasion Important in Mass Communication?

Mass Communication : Effects of Technology on Mass Communication

Media Effects

Selective exposure theory

“…Selective exposure theory is a theory of communication, positing that individuals prefer exposure to arguments supporting their position over those supporting other positions. As media consumers have more choices to expose themselves to selected medium and media contents with which they agree, then tend to select content that confirms their own ideas and avoid information that argues against their opinion. People don’t want to be told that they are wrong and they do not want their ideas to be challenged either. Therefore, they select different media outlets that agree with their opinions so they do not come in contact with this form of dissonance. Furthermore, these people will select the media sources that agree with their opinions and attitudes on different subjects and then only follow those programs.

Foundation of theory

 Propaganda study

 The Evasion of Propaganda

When prejudiced people confront anti-prejudice propaganda involuntarily, even though they might avoid the message from the first time, the process of evasion would occur in their mind. Cooper and Jahoda (1947) studied how the anti-prejudice propaganda can be misunderstood by prejudiced people. When the prejudiced reader confronted the Mr. Biggott cartoon, which contained anti-minority propaganda, their effort to evade their feelings and understand Mr. Biggott’s identification with their own identity would bring about misunderstanding. This kind of evasion occurs because of what individuals often face to accomplish uniformity in everyday life. There is a fear to be isolated from what they belong and also threat for shivering their ego. Therefore, the concept of selective exposure was in the same thread with small effect studies in mass communication in 1940s.

Cognitive dissonance theory

Before the selective exposure theory was put forward, Festinger(1957) published a book, Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, and explained the cognitive dissonance theory, which assumes that all human beings pursue consistency in their mind.

  • Basic Hypotheses
    • It 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.
    • Many times people favor consonance because their ideas flow freely into one another and do not create an unbalance. [2]
    • The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the 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. [3]

Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory, which was one of the roots of selective exposure, explained people’s effort to reduce their dissonance of something against their existing beliefs. Nonetheless, his theory was broad enough to be elucidated in general social behavior, not just for selecting medium and media contents. Festinger suggested situations that increase dissonance. Firstly, logical inconsistency brings about dissonance. If a person who believes it is not possible to build a device to leave Earth’s atmosphere observes man reach the moon, their belief and experience are dissonant with each other. Secondly, cultural morals entail dissonance. A person picks up a chicken bone with their hands, and it is dissonant with what they believe is formal etiquette. At this point, culture defines what is consonant and what is dissonant. Thirdly, if specific opinion is included in a more general opinion, dissonance should be followed. A person, who has been Democrat, prefers Republican candidates for certain election. This situation creates dissonance, because “Being a Democrat” needs to be attributed to favoring Democratic candidates. Lastly, past experience causes dissonance. If a person is standing in the rain, but is not wet, these two cognitions would be dissonant, because they might know standing in the rain leads to getting wet through past experience. Festinger (1957) also suggests the ways of reducing dissonance. For reducing dissonance, one may change a behavioral cognitive element or change an environmental cognitive element. However, sometimes, behavior change and environmental change do not help reducing dissonance. Festinger, then, suggested adding new cognitive elements. If people cannot reduce dissonance, they might seek new information, which is consonant with their beliefs or attitude; therefore, people might actively seek new information that would decrease dissonance and avoid new information that would increase dissonance. This third explanation of reducing dissonance is similar with selective exposure, which mass communication reinforces the existing opinion.

    • Another example of the Cognitive Dissonance Theory can be found in the article entitled, “Theories of Persuasion,” by Daniel J. O’Keefe. It describes the different theories of persuasion and how media outlets use them to their advantage to influence their audience. The author’s example is that people donate to the Red Cross because they believe in what it stands for which represents consonance. However, on the other hand, the author suggests that a person who smokes and also believes it causes cancer, would be an example of dissonance and hypocrisy. Many times people try to sway against dissonance because it puts them in an uncomfortable position. Therefore, these feelings of consonance and dissonance lead to the “Selective Exposure Theory” because some believe that people will select the media sources that agree with their opinions and attitudes on different subjects and then only follow those programs. [4]

 Klapper’s selective exposure

Joseph Klapper (1960) considered mass communication do not directly influence people, but just reinforce people’s predisposition. Mass communications play a role as a mediator in persuasive communication.

  • 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. [5]
  • 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 a mediator. For example, one can be strongly disinclined to change to the Democratic Party if their family has voted for 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 increase of exposure to mass communication and eventually reinforce the existing opinion. Opinion leader is also a crucial factor to form predisposition of someone, lead someone to be exposed by mass communication, and after all, existing opinion would be reinforced. Nature of commercial mass media also leads people to select certain type of media contents. Klapper (1960) claimed that people are selecting entertainment, such as family comedy, variety shows, quizzes, and Westerns, because of nature of mass media in a free enterprise society.

Selective exposure in entertainment theory perspective

Selective exposure is an instinctive activity of human beings. Early human beings needed to be sensitive to the sounds of animals. This kind of exposure was closely related with their survival from an external threat. Survival is still a very crucial matter for human beings; however, selective exposure is also important for human beings for other purposes, such as entertainment.

“Selective exposure designates behavior that is deliberately performed to attain and sustain perceptual control of particular stimulus events.”

Zillmann and Bryant, 1985[6]

 Affective-dependent theory of stimulus arrangement

Zillmann and Bryant (1985) developed affective-dependent theory of stimulus arrangement in the chapter of their edited book, Selective exposure to communication.

  • Basic Assumptions
    • people tend to minimize exposure to negative, aversive stimuli
    • people tend to maximize exposure to pleasurable stimuli.

After all, people try to arrange the external stimuli to maintain their pleasure, which ultimately let people select certain affect-inducing program, such as music, movie, or other entertainment program. In other words, people manage their mood by selecting certain kind of entertainment to exposure themselves; mood management theory was also rooted by this affective-dependent theory.

Furthermore, people will select media based on their moods. An example of this is if a person is happy they would probably select a comedic movie. If they are bored they might choose action and if they are sad they might select tragedy or a depressing romance. These attitudes and moods also convince people to watch different news outlets based on how they feel. People with conservative beliefs tend to watch Fox news and Democrats usually watch MSNBC.

  • Examples:

1**A person with liberal beliefs, who comes home from a hard day at work will probably turn on MSNBC. They would not be in the mood to fight with a news station that has conservative beliefs constantly being portrayed. 2**A woman who just broke up with her boyfriend would probably not be in the mood to watch a romantic movie and would therefore tend to pick a movie that falls into the genre of tragedy.

Selective exposure processes in mood management

    • Excitatory Homeostasis – Tendency of individuals to choose entertainment to achieve an optimal level of arousal.
    • Intervention Potential – Ability of a message to engage or absorb an aroused individual’s attention or cognitive-processing resources.
    • Message-Behavioral Affinity – Communication that has a high degree of similarity with affective state.
    • Hedonic Valence – Positive or negative nature of a message. [7]


  • Possible influence by factors other than a person’s emotional state.
  • Difficulty to measure long-term effect.
  • Overlook the importance of cognitive processes.
  • Not suit for information and education media.
  • Possibility that negative stimuli provide enjoyment by overcoming it.

Harold Lasswell

“…Harold Dwight Lasswell (February 13, 1902 — December 18, 1978) was a leading American political scientist and communications theorist. He was a member of the Chicago school of sociology and was a professor at Yale University in law. He was a President of the American Political Science Association (APSA) and World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS). According to a biographical memorial written by Gabriel Almond at the time of Lasswell’s death and published by the National Academies of Sciences in 1987, Lasswell “ranked among the half dozen creative innovators in the social sciences in the twentieth century.” At the time, Almond asserted that “few would question that he was the most original and productive political scientist of his time.” Areas of research in which Lasswell worked included the importance of personality, social structure, and culture in the explanation of political phenomena. He was noted to be ahead of his time in employing a variety of methodological approaches that later became standards across a variety of intellectual traditions including interviewing techniques, content analysis, para-experimental techniques, and statistical measurement.

He is well known for his comment on communications:

Who (says) What (to) Whom (in) What Channel (with) What Effect

and on politics:

Politics is who gets what, when, and how.

and on aberrant psychological attributes of leaders in politics and business:

Psychopathology and Politics

Lasswell studied at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, and was highly influenced by the pragmatism taught there, especially as propounded by John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. More influential, however, was Freudian philosophy, which informed much of his analysis of propaganda and communication in general. During World War II, Lasswell held the position of Chief of the Experimental Division for the Study of War Time Communications at the Library of Congress. He analyzed Nazi propaganda films to identify mechanisms of persuasion used to secure the acquiescence and support of the German populace for Hitler and his wartime atrocities. Always forward-looking, late in his life, Lasswell experimented with questions concerning astropolitics, the political consequences of colonization of other planets, and the “machinehood of humanity.”

Lasswell’s work was important in the post-World War II development of behavioralism.

Major works

  • Propaganda Technique in the World War (1927; Reprinted with a new introduction, 1971)
  • Psychopathology and Politics, (1930; reprinted, 1986)
  • World Politics and Personal Insecurity (1935; Reprinted with a new introduction, 1965)
  • Politics: Who Gets What, When, How (1935)
  • “The Garrison State” (1941)
  • Power and Personality (1948) …”

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Survey of Broadcasting: Assignment 2, Question 3. Discuss the differences between the catharsis theory and the stimulation theory. Which one do you consider to be more valid? Why?

Posted on June 30, 2011. Filed under: Aggression, Communications, Communications Theory, Television, Violence | Tags: , , , , , |

The catharsis theory posits that watching media violence relieves the aggressive urges of those viewers in the audience. 

 The stimulation theory posits that watching media violence stimulates aggressive acts in real life by viewers in the audience.

Laboratory experiments designed to test both theories found little support for the catharsis theory.

The bulk of the laboratory research supports the stimulation theory.

However, these early laboratory experiments were criticized for being artificial and using violent TV segments that were not typical of what most viewers saw on TV.

When more realistic violent segments and more relevant aggression measures were used in subsequent experiments, they confirmed that watching violence stimulates subsequent real-life aggression.

More recent laboratory experiments have focused on the factors that might increase or decrease the amount of aggression performed in response to violent media segments.

The general consensus among social scientists is television violence is a cause of subsequent aggression in viewers.

However, it is not the cause since there are many other factors beside TV that determine whether an individual will behave aggressively.

The other factors include age, gender, family interaction, and how the violence is presented on the TV.

In relative terms the effect of TV violence on subsequent aggression is small.

Correlation survey studies show that viewing TV violence and antisocial behaviors are linked but tells us nothing definitive about cause and effect.

 Longitudinal panel surveys that examine the same individual at different points in time.

These studies suggest that viewing TV violence causes viewers to become more aggressive.

However, the degree of relationship between the two factors is small and in a few cases too difficult to detect.

Watching TV encourages aggression, which in turn encourages the watching of more violent TV.

Meta-analysis of the results of many past studies indicates a positive link between media violence and aggressive behaviour. The greatest effect was found in laboratory  experiments and the weakest in long-term panel surveys.

The effect of TV violence on an individual behaving aggressively is small and the precise effect will be impacted by many other factors. 

Therefore I do not consider either the catharsis theory or the stimulation theory to be persuasive  The stimulation theory relative to the catharsis theory is better supported and more valid.

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