Monday, November 8, 2010

What We Know vs What We Feel

Psychologists and other scholars have long labored to understand the relationship between cognition (thinking) and affect (emotion). Which comes first? How does one influence the other? Can messages be tailored to appeal to one more than the other, thus making them more persuasive?

It's a messy business and I'm certainly not going to settle the debate in a simple blog posting. Indeed, I'm not even going to try. Consider this more of me thinking out loud (yeah, scary), positing some potential questions in today's current political climate, and wondering if our news media now appeals more to what people feel than what people know.

Assuming there's a difference between the two.

The growing partisan nature of news and its audience makes emotion so very much a part of our new information climate.  First, many anchors or hosts appeal largely to emotion.  Usually anger, sometimes disgust, no doubt distrust, and often at least unease with the "other side" of the political divide.  This colors thinking by kicking in various filters, usually partisan or ideological filters, that influence how we process new information.  Hate the Dems?  Nothing Nancy Pelosi says is going to get through to you, thus emotion colors cognition.  In various models of persuasion, we assume that a balanced, reasonable argument will have some chance of getting through, but I think all those assumptions are largely out the window.

No, we're into building up and knocking down our ideological straw men.

So news is now almost completely invaded by the emotional.  In some cases that's not a bad thing.  Sympathy or empathy, those are good emotions.  And anger too, has it's purpose.  Fear is good.  At our most basic level, fight or flight is a very human response to some stimuli, so fear can save your life.  But does it belong in our political discourse?  No, probably not, but I challenge you to spend three hours with TV talking heads and not hear appeals to just those negative emotions.

And best, or worst, of all -- it sells.

Emotion draws an audience.  It sells books.  It brings in advertising.

It's the future of news.

So as I wind down this spew of disgust with the future of news, I also argue that emotion makes learning even more difficult, thus people will get less and less real information -- versus misinformation -- from our brave new world of what sadly passes today as journalism, at least at the cable TV level.  Is it only a matter of time before this dribbles its way into other media?  Yup.  And that's a bad thing.

No comments: