Selective exposure theory

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Selective exposure is a psychological theory, often utilized in media and communication research, that historically refers to individuals’ tendency to favor information which reinforces pre-existing views while avoiding contradictory information.

According to the historical use of the term, people tend to select specific aspects of exposed information based on their perspectives, beliefs, attitudes and decisions.[1] People can mentally dissect the information they are exposed to and select favorable evidence, while ignoring the unfavorable. This theory has been explored using the cognitive dissonance theory, which suggests that information consumers strive for results in cognitive equilibrium. Cognitive equilibrium, which is defined as a state of balance between a person’s mental representation of the world and his or her environment, is crucial to understanding selective exposure theory. According to Jean Piaget, when a mismatch occurs, people find it to be “inherently dissatisfying.”[2] Thus, in order to attain this equilibrium and avoid confusion, individuals may either reinterpret the information they are exposed to, so that it will no longer conflict with their pre-existing views, or select certain pieces of information that are consistent while discarding pieces that are inconsistent with these same pre-existing views.

The premise of selective exposure relies on the assumption that information-seeking behavior continues even after an individual has taken a stance on an issue. Previous information-seeking behavior will be colored by various factors of the issue that are activated during the decision-making process.[3] Thus, selective exposure operates by reinforcing beliefs rather than exposing individuals to a diverse array of viewpoints, which is considered an important aspect of a functioning democracy.[4] There are several factors that persuade one's thinking when making a decision. For example, someone’s physical characteristics, age, and more can lead to interpretations about his or her personal attributes when one participates in selective exposure. Furthermore, another reason that people decide to stray away from new information and resources is that it often conflicts with their own beliefs. Selective exposure surrounds us daily as it influences and engages family, friends, co-workers, and doctors. Media forms such as the internet, television and paper sources are also highly influenced as well.[5]

Selective exposure has been displayed in various contexts such as self-serving situations and situations in which people hold prejudices regarding outgroups, particular opinions, and personal and group-related issues.[6] Perceived usefulness of information, perceived norm of fairness, and curiosity of valuable information are three factors that can counteract selective exposure.[3]

Effect on decision-making[edit]

Individual versus group decision-making[edit]

This image, which can be seen as a young woman or an older woman, serves as an example of how individuals can choose to perceive the same image differently. According to Selective Exposure Theory, people tend to seek out the version of a stimulant that they want to be exposed to, such as a form of the stimulant that they are already familiar with.

Selective exposure can affect the decisions people make as individuals or as groups because they may be unwilling to change their views and beliefs either collectively or on their own. Changing beliefs about one's self, other people, and the world are three variables to why people fear new information.[5] A variety of studies has shown that selective exposure effects can occur in the context of both individual and group decision making.[7] Numerous situational variables have been identified that increase the tendency toward selective exposure.[8] Social psychology, specifically, includes research with a variety of situational factors and related psychological processes that eventually persuade the efforts to make a quality decision. Additionally, from a psychological perspective, the effects of selective exposure can both stem from motivational and cognitive accounts.[8] Schulz-Hardt et al. (2010) investigated whether information searches were determined by subjectively perceived information. More specifically, they studied whether the subject receiving the information and those who made the decisions were persuaded by the subject who provided the information to them. From a cognitive perspective, researchers assume that decision makers seek to find the qualitatively best pieces of decision-relevant information, like appearance. Because decision makers are not able to evaluate the information quality independent of their own position, decision-inconsistent information is systematically tested more critically than decision-consistent information.[9][better source needed] Therefore, decision-consistent information receives a subjectively perceived quality advantage and is thus preferred over inconsistent information.

Selective exposure enables the prevention of gathering new information. Selective exposure is prevalent within singular individuals and groups of people. In Jonas et al. (2001) empirical studies were done on four different experiments investigating individuals' and groups' decision making. This article suggests that confirmation bias is prevalent in decision making. Those who find new information often draw their attention towards areas where they hold personal attachment to. Thus, people are driven toward pieces of information that are coherent with their own expectations or beliefs as a result of this selective exposure theory occurring in action. Throughout the process of the four experiments, generalization is always considered valid and confirmation bias is always present when seeking new information and making decisions.[7]

Accuracy motivation and defense motivation[edit]

Fischer and Greitemeyer (2010) explored individuals’ decision making in terms of selective exposure to confirmatory information.[10] Selective exposure posed that individuals make their decisions based on information that is consistent with their decision rather than information that is inconsistent. Researchers explain that subjects have the tendency to seek and select information using their integrative model. There are two primary motivations for selective exposure: Accuracy Motivation and Defense Motivation. Accuracy Motivation explains that an individual is motivated to be accurate in their decision making and Defense Motivation explains that one seeks confirmatory information to support their beliefs and justify their decisions. Accuracy motivation is not always beneficial within the context of selective exposure and can instead be counterintuitive, increasing the amount of selective exposure. Defense motivation can lead to reduced levels of selective exposure.[10]

Personal attributes[edit]

Selective exposure avoids information inconsistent with one’s beliefs and attitudes. When analyzing a person's decision-making skills, his or her unique process of gathering relevant information is not the only factor taken into account. Fischer et al. (2010) found it important to consider the information source itself, otherwise explained as the physical being that provided the source of information.[8] Selective exposure research generally neglects the influence of indirect decision-related attributes, such as physical appearance. In Fischer et al. (2010) two studies hypothesized that physically attractive information sources resulted in decision makers to be more selective in searching and reviewing decision-relevant information. Researchers explored the impact of social information and its level of physical attractiveness. The data was then analyzed and used to support the idea that selective exposure existed for those who needed to make a decision.[8] Therefore, the more attractive an information source was, the more positive and detailed the subject was with making the decision. Physical attractiveness affects an individual's decision because the perception of quality improves. Physically attractive information sources increased the quality of consistent information needed to make decisions and further increased the selective exposure in decision-relevant information, supporting the researchers' hypothesis.[10] Both studies concluded that attractiveness is driven by a different selection and evaluation of decision-consistent information. Decision makers allow factors such as physical attractiveness to affect everyday decisions due to the works of selective exposure. In another study, selective exposure was defined by the amount of individual confidence. Individuals can control the amount of selective exposure depending on whether they have a low self-esteem or high self-esteem. Individuals who maintain higher confidence levels reduce the amount of selective exposure.[11] Albarracín and Mitchell (2004) hypothesized that those who displayed higher confidence levels were more willing to seek out information both consistent and inconsistent with their views. The phrase "decision-consistent information" explains the tendency to actively seek decision-relevant information. Selective exposure occurs when individuals search for information and show systematic preferences towards ideas that are consistent, rather than inconsistent, with their beliefs.[8] On the contrary, those who exhibited low levels of confidence were more inclined to examine information that did not agree with their views. The researchers found that in three out of five studies participants showed more confidence and scored higher on the Defensive Confidence Scale,[11] which serves as evidence that their hypothesis was correct.

Bozo et al. (2009) investigated the anxiety of fearing death and compared it to various age groups in relation to health-promoting behaviors. Researchers analyzed the data by using the terror management theory and found that age had no direct effect on specific behaviors. The researchers thought that a fear of death would yield health-promoting behaviors in young adults. When individuals are reminded of their own death, it causes stress and anxiety, but eventually leads to positive changes in their health behaviors. Their conclusions showed that older adults were consistently better at promoting and practicing good health behaviors, without thinking about death, compared to young adults.[12] Young adults were less motivated to change and practice health-promoting behaviors because they used the selective exposure to confirm their prior beliefs. Selective exposure thus creates barriers between the behaviors in different ages, but there is no specific age at which people change their behaviors.

Theories accounting for selective exposure[edit]

Festinger's groundbreaking study on Cognitive Dissonance is the foundation for Modern Selective Exposure Theory.

Cognitive dissonance theory[edit]

Eminent 1960's Psychological Theorist Leon Festinger

Leon Festinger is widely considered as the father of modern social psychology and as an important figure to that field of practice as Freud was to clinical psychology and Piaget was to developmental psychology.[13] Festinger proposed the groundbreaking theory of cognitive dissonance that has become the foundation of selective exposure theory today, despite the fact that Festinger was considered as an "avant-garde" psychologist when he had first proposed it in 1957.[14] Cognitive dissonance theory explains that when a person's mind contains conflicting attitudes, thoughts, or beliefs, they experience some mental discomfort. Once individuals become aware of this contradiction, they may seek to avoid such conflicting information in the future since it produces this discomfort, or they may seek out messages sympathetic to their own pre-existing beliefs.[15] Decision makers are unable to evaluate information quality independently on their own (Fischer, Jonas, Dieter & Kastenmüller, 2008).[16] When there is a conflict between pre-existing views and information encountered, individuals will experience an unpleasant and self-threatening state of aversive-arousal which will motivate them to reduce it through selective exposure, preferring information that supports one's original decision and neglecting conflicting information. Individuals will then exhibit confirmatory information tendencies to defend their positions and reach the goal of dissonance reduction.[17]

In Festinger’s theory, there are two basic hypotheses:

1) The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance.

2) When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance (Festinger 1957, p. 3).

Cognitive dissonance also occurs when people feel an attachment to and responsibility for a decision, position or behavior. It increases the motivation to justify their positions through selective exposure to confirmatory information (Fischer, 2011). In an experiment that employed commitment manipulations, it impacts perceived decision certainty. Participants were free to choose attitude-consistent and inconsistent information to write an essay. Those who wrote an attitude-consistent essay showed higher levels of confirmatory information search (Fischer, 2011).[18] The levels and magnitude of dissonance also play a role. Selective exposure to consistent information is likely under certain levels of dissonance. At high levels, a person is expected to seek out information that increases dissonance because the best strategy to reduce dissonance would be to alter one's attitude or decision (Smith et al., 2008).[19]

However, subsequent research on selective exposure within dissonance theory produced weak empirical support, until dissonance theory was revised and methods conducive to measuring selective exposure were improved.[3] To date, scholars still argue that empirical results supporting the selective exposure hypothesis are still mixed, possibly due to the issues used in experimental studies[20] or the failure to simulate an authentic media environment in experiments.[21]

According to Festinger, the motivation to seek or avoid information depends on the magnitude of dissonance experienced (Smith et al., 2008).[19] It is observed that there is a tendency for people to seek new information or select information that supports their beliefs in order to reduce dissonance. There exists three possibilities which will affect extent of dissonance (Festinger 1957, pp. 127-131):

  • Relative absence of dissonance.

When little or no dissonance exists, there is little or no motivation to seek new information. For example, when there is an absence of dissonance, the lack of motivation to attend or avoid a lecture on 'The Advantages of Automobiles with Very High Horsepower Engines' will be independent of whether the car a new owner has recently purchased has a high or low horsepower engine. However, it is important to note the difference between a situation when there is no dissonance and when the information has no relevance to the present or future behavior. For the latter, accidental exposure, which the new car owner does not avoid, will not introduce any dissonance; while for the former individual, who also does not avoid information, dissonance may be accidentally introduced.

  • The presence of moderate amounts of dissonance.

The existence of dissonance and consequent pressure to reduce it will lead to an active search of information, which will then lead people to avoid information that will increase dissonance. However, when faced with a potential source of information, there will be an ambiguous cognition to which a subject will react in terms of individual expectations about it. If the subject expects the cognition to increase dissonance, they will avoid it. In the event that one's expectations are proven wrong, the attempt at dissonance reduction may result in increasing it instead. It may in turn lead to a situation of active avoidance.

  • The presence of extremely large amounts of dissonance.

If two cognitive elements exist in a dissonant relationship, the magnitude of dissonance matches the resistance to change. If the dissonance becomes greater than the resistance to change, then the least resistant elements of cognition will be changed, reducing dissonance. When dissonance is close to the maximum limit, one may actively seek out and expose oneself to dissonance-increasing information. If an individual can increase dissonance to the point where it is greater than the resistance to change, he will change the cognitive elements involved, reducing or even eliminating dissonance. Once dissonance is increased sufficiently, an individual may bring himself to change, hence eliminating all dissonance (Festinger 1957, pp. 127-131).

The reduction in cognitive dissonance following a decision can be achieved by selectively looking for decision-consonant information and avoiding contradictory information. The objective is to reduce the discrepancy between the cognitions, but the specification of which strategy will be chosen is not explicitly addressed by the dissonance theory. It will be dependent on the quantity and quality of the information available inside and outside the cognitive system.[3]

Klapper's selective exposure[edit]

In the early 1960s, Columbia University researcher Joseph T. Klapper asserted in his book The Effects Of Mass Communication that audiences were not passive targets of political and commercial propaganda from mass media but that mass media reinforces previously held convictions. He argued that the effects were modified by factors such as message content, format and audience members’ individual backgrounds.[22][page needed] Prior to Klapper’s research, the prevailing opinion was that mass media had a substantial power to sway individual opinion and that audiences were passive consumers of prevailing media propaganda. However, by the time of the release of The Effects of Mass Communication, many studies led to a conclusion that many specifically targeted messages were completely ineffective. Klapper’s research showed that individuals gravitated towards media messages that bolstered previously held convictions that were set by peer groups, societal influences, and family structures and that the accession of these messages over time did not change when presented with more recent media influence. Klapper noted from the review of Social Science research that given the abundance of content within the mass media, audiences were selective to the types of programming that they consumed. Adults would patronize media that was appropriate for their demographics and children would eschew media that was boring to them. So individuals would either accept or reject a mass media message based upon internal filters that were innate to that person.[23]

The following are Klapper's five mediating factors and conditions to affect people:[24]

  • 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.

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 mediators. For example, one can be strongly disinclined to change to the Democratic Party if their family has voted 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 to an increase in exposure to mass communication and eventually reinforce the existing opinion. An opinion leader is also a crucial factor to form one's predisposition and can lead someone to be exposed by mass communication. The nature of commercial mass media also leads people to select certain types of media contents.


Individuals often tailor their programming choices to fit their worldview according to Selective Exposure Theory


Recent studies have shown more relevant empirical evidence for the prevalence of selective exposure. Some researchers suggest that consumers now hold more influence over the information provided to them by the media. Consumers tend to select media content that exposes and confirms their own ideas while avoiding information that argues against their opinion. For example, politics are more likely to inspire selective exposure among consumers as opposed to singe exposure decisions.[25] For example, in their 2009 meta-analysis of Selective Exposure Theory, Hart et al. reported that "A 2004 survey by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (2006) found that Republicans are about 1.5 times more likely to report watching Fox News regularly than are Democrats (34% for Republicans and 20% of Democrats). In contrast, Democrats are 1.5 times more likely to report watching CNN regularly than Republicans (28% of Democrats vs. 19% of Republicans). Even more striking, Republicans are approximately five times more likely than Democrats to report watching “The O’Reilly Factor” regularly and are seven times more likely to report listening to “Rush Limbaugh” regularly."[26]

In early research, selective exposure originally provided an explanation for limited media effects. The "limited effects" model of communication emerged in the 1940s with a shift in the media effects paradigm. This shift suggested that while the media has effects on consumers' behavior such as their voting behavior, these effects are limited and influenced indirectly by interpersonal discussions and the influence of opinion leaders. Selective exposure was considered one necessary function in early studies of media’s limited power over citizens’ attitudes and behaviors.[27] Political ads deal with selective exposure as well because people are more likely to favor a politician that agrees with their own beliefs. Furthermore, voters tend to read more about their preferred political candidate than an opponent. Specifically, in Berelson and Steiner (1964), both stated that people tend to hear and see information favorable to their predispositions; thus, they are more likely to hear and see congenial information rather than neutral resources.[28][page needed] Another significant effect of selective exposure comes from Stroud (2010) who analyzed the relationship between partisan selective exposure and political polarization. Using data from the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey, analysts found that over time partisan selective exposure leads to polarization.[29] This process is plausible because people can easily create or have access to blogs, websites, chats, and online forums where those with similar views and political ideologies can congregate. According to Cass Sunstein's book,, the presence of selective exposure on the web creates an environment that breeds political polarization and extremism.[30][page needed] Due to easy access to social media and other online resources, people are "likely to hold even stronger views than the ones they started with, and when these views are problematic, they are likely to manifest increasing hatred toward those espousing contrary beliefs."[31] This illustrates how selective exposure can influence an individual's participation in the political system.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sullivan, Larry E., ed. (2009). "Selective Exposure". The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. SAGE Publications. p. 465. ISBN 978-1-4129-5143-2. 
  2. ^ Beauchamp, Anne S. (2005). "Cognitive equilibrium". In Salkind, Neil J. Encyclopedia of Human Development. SAGE Publications. pp. 281–282. ISBN 978-1-4522-6539-1. 
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  4. ^ Chaffee, Steven H.; Saphir, Melissa Nichols; Graf, Joseph; Sandvig, Christian; Hahn, Kyu Sup (2001). "Attention to Counter-Attitudinal Messages in a State Election Campaign". Political Communication 18 (3): 247–272. doi:10.1080/10584600152400338. 
  5. ^ a b Sweeny, Kate; Melnyk, Darya; Miller, Wendi; Shepperd, James A. (2010). "Information avoidance: Who, what, when, and why.". Review of General Psychology 14 (4): 340–353. doi:10.1037/a0021288. 
  6. ^ Kastenmüller, Andreas; Greitemeyer, Tobias; Jonas, Eva; Fischer, Peter; Frey, Dieter (2010). "Selective exposure: The impact of collectivism and individualism". British Journal of Social Psychology 49 (4): 745–763. doi:10.1348/014466609X478988. 
  7. ^ a b Jonas, Eva; Schulz-Hardt, Stefan; Frey, Dieter; Thelen, Norman (2001). "Confirmation bias in sequential information search after preliminary decisions: An expansion of dissonance theoretical research on selective exposure to information.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80 (4): 557–571. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.80.4.557. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Fischer, Peter; Fischer, Julia K.; Aydin, Nilüfer; Frey, Dieter (2010). "Physically Attractive Social Information Sources Lead to Increased Selective Exposure to Information". Basic and Applied Social Psychology 32 (4): 340–347. doi:10.1080/01973533.2010.519208. 
  9. ^ Schulz-Hardt, S. , Fischer, P. & Frey, D. (2010). Confirmation bias in accuracy-motivated decision-making: A cognitive explanation for biased information seeking . Manuscript under revision
  10. ^ a b c Fischer, Peter; Kastenmüller, Andreas; Greitemeyer, Tobias; Fischer, Julia; Frey, Dieter; Crelley, David (2011). "Threat and selective exposure: The moderating role of threat and decision context on confirmatory information search after decisions". Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 140 (1): 51–62. doi:10.1037/a0021595. 
  11. ^ a b Albarracin, D. (2004). "The Role of Defensive Confidence in Preference for Proattitudinal Information: How Believing That One Is Strong Can Sometimes Be a Defensive Weakness". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 30 (12): 1565–1584. doi:10.1177/0146167204271180. 
  12. ^ Bozo, Özlem; Tunca, Ayča; Šimšek, Yeliz (2009). "The Effect of Death Anxiety and Age on Health-Promoting Behaviors: A Terror-Management Theory Perspective". The Journal of Psychology 143 (4): 377–389. doi:10.3200/JRLP.143.4.377-389. 
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  16. ^ Fischer, Peter; Jonas, Eva; Frey, Dieter; Kastenmüller, Andreas (2008). "Selective exposure and decision framing: The impact of gain and loss framing on confirmatory information search after decisions". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (2): 312–320. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2007.06.001. 
  17. ^ Fischer, Peter; Lea, Stephen; Kastenmüller, Andreas; Greitemeyer, Tobias; Fischer, Julia; Frey, Dieter (2011). "The process of selective exposure: Why confirmatory information search weakens over time". Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 114 (1): 37–48. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2010.09.001. 
  18. ^ Fischer, Peter (2011). "Selective Exposure, Decision Uncertainty, and Cognitive Economy: A New Theoretical Perspective on Confirmatory Information Search". Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5 (10): 751–762. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2011.00386.x. 
  19. ^ a b Smith, Steven M.; Fabrigar, Leandre R.; Norris, Meghan E. (2008). "Reflecting on Six Decades of Selective Exposure Research: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities". Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2 (1): 464–493. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00060.x. 
  20. ^ Taber, Charles S.; Lodge, Milton (2006). "Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs". American Journal of Political Science 50 (3): 755–769. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2006.00214.x. 
  21. ^ Knobloch-Westerwick, S.; Meng, Jingbo (16 March 2009). "Looking the Other Way: Selective Exposure to Attitude-Consistent and Counterattitudinal Political Information". Communication Research 36 (3): 426–448. doi:10.1177/0093650209333030. 
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  23. ^ Heath, Robert L. (2004). "Reinforcement Theory". In Heath, Robert L. Encyclopedia of Public Relations 2. SAGE Publications. pp. 738–740. ISBN 978-1-4522-6545-2. 
  24. ^ Klapper, Joseph T. (1960). The effects of mass communication. Free Press. p. 19. LCCN 60014402. 
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