The effects of arousing news on individuals' motivated belief system


Are arousing news messages enabling the division of the population?

Did you know that people read the news because it arouses them? Modern news reporting increasingly incorporates layers of negativity and sensationalism to arouse citizens and in that way attract an audience. According to the following study conducted by communication scientist and researcher Ming Boyer, this might impact how people consume and process news to form attitudes and can even lead to political or social polarization.

What does that mean exactly? Boyer draws on the theory of motivated reasoning, which has previously been used in news research to determine viewers' news selection and processing. More specifically, the theory states that "citizens boost their scrutiny of news that threatens their prior beliefs or social identity, leading to policy attitudes and behavior that bolster their identity". However, Boyer criticizes the theory for using an oversimplified conceptualization of affect, focusing only on whether citizens experience positive of negative affect. Hence, he ties in the affective state of arousal to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the theory and determine the consequences of arousal, as caused by news messages.

As part of an experiment involving 191 Austrian participants in 2019, he randomly exposed them to one out of two news segments concerning immigration, with a varying level of threat between the news items. He specifically chose the topic of immigration, as research has shown that it "causes social identity threat to citizens’ national, ethnic, and religious identity". Physiological measurements were taken to determine arousal during the news consumption. To assess negative valence, electrodes were placed on the forehead measuring tiny, unnoticeable contractions in the muscle that is used to frown. Arousal was assessed by measuring sweat generation in the fingertips. After watching the segment, the participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire specifying on their perception of the strength of arguments in the news report, of the proposed immigration policy, and on their willingness to actively support or reject immigrants in consideration of the news item.

The investigation based on negative valence (regardless of the level of arousal) showed mixed results. Unexpectedly, the TV feature with low threat triggered stronger negative affective states in recipients compared to the TV feature with high threat messages. Experiencing negative affect did lead to less perceived argumentative strength in the news segment, and to less support for a pro-immigration policy, but surprisingly not to less willingness to help immigrants.

Adding the arousal dimension of affect to the analysis, explained some of these mixed results. The high-threat TV feature led to less negative affect, but to more negative affect in combination with high arousal. And this combination was exactly the strongest driver of motivated reasoning. High-arousal negative affective states induced less perceived argument strength, less support for the immigration policy, and less willingness to help the refugees. A high state of arousal also acted as a catalyst in shaping attitudes against threatening circumstances. For instance, negative valence in combination with low levels of arousal led to more willingness to help refugees, whereas negative valence together with high levels of arousal led to the opposite: less willingness to help refugees. Boyer states "high-arousal negative affective states seem to play a crucial part in motivated reasoning responses to political news."

Considering this significant discovery that arousing news coverage can severely impact our attitude formation, Ming Boyer concludes his study with the following statement: "Journalists create arousing news because citizens enjoy it and consume it more. However, as this study shows, arousal plays a crucial role in citizens' defensive reasoning. News that is threatening to one's 'tribe' causes both a negative emotional response and physical arousal. In this state, citizens are least likely to agree with arguments and form their attitudes in a way that favors their 'tribe'. Arousing news might thus drive citizens apart."

Publication details

Boyer, M. M. (2021). Aroused argumentation: How the news exacerbates motivated reasoning. The International Journal of Press/Politics. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/19401612211010577

University of Vienna Political Communication researcher Ming Boyer's study investigated the impact of arousal on citizen’s motivated news processing. The study was realized as an experiment involving 191 Austrian citizens in 2019. The participants watched a televised news item about immigration, with varying levels of threat, while the researcher took physiological measures to document their preconscious emotional state in terms of arousal and negative valance. Afterwards, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire, measuring their perception of the strength of the arguments in the news report, their perception of the proposed policy, and on their willingness to actively support or reject immigrants. The study sheds light on the consequences of arousing news coverage on the recipient’s attitude formation process. (Image © Andrea Piacquadio)
Ming Boyer is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Communication, expecting to obtain his Ph.D. in 2021. He is writing his dissertation under the supervision of Sophie Lecheler, at the Political Communication Research Group of the University of Vienna. His research interests include intergroup processes surrounding news consumption and their consequences for democracy and society. In his Ph.D. project, Ming studies the way that memberships in social groups influence how we consume, process and interpret news, as well as how news consumption affects such group memberships in return. His work has been published in leading journals in the field, like Political Communication and Political Studies. Before starting his PhD project, Ming completed the Research Master Communication Science (cum laude) at the Graduate School of Communication of the University of Amsterdam in January 2016. (Image © Michael Winkelmann)