How to see?
“This is a fluid universe where what one is looking for determines what one sees.”
How do we do this? Exactly how do we wake up from “trance imposed on us by our senses,” as McLuhan describes media influence and fortify ourselves against Postman’s American Technopoy? We pay attention to how we see, which we will define here as perception. Indeed, when he spoke at the 2007 Convention of the Media Ecology Association in Mexico City, Eric McLuhan, Marshall’s son and co-author of Laws of Media, accurately predicted the next stage of development in the study of human communication and the media that deliver our messages: “Perception is the next frontier,” Eric said. Paying attention to how we see means better understanding the role of human perception in the communication process, which is particularly essential with the advent of digital media and social networking tools.
Studying and better understanding perception and how human beings see is of critical importance to journalists, media ecologists, and communications scholars now because the processes of perception routinely alter what humans see. According to French Phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, when people view something with a preconceived concept about it, they tend to take those concepts and see them whether or not they are there. This problem stems from the fact that humans are unable to understand new information, without the inherent bias of their previous knowledge. A person’s knowledge creates his or her reality as much as the truth because the human mind can only contemplate that to which it has been exposed. When objects are viewed without understanding, the mind will try to reach for something that it already recognizes, in order to process what it is viewing. That which most closely relates to the unfamiliar from our past experiences, makes up what we see when we look at things that we don’t comprehend.
The perceptual bias that favors the confirmation of old knowledge over the reception and accurate processing of new information has far reaching and profound consequences for both the creation and consumption of news in the newssphere: even when exposed and confronted with facts that are indeed true, people often select and, even more devastating, distort those facts to fit existing belief systems. This behavioral and cognitive phenomenon has been termed “back fire” by political scientists at the University of Michigan. Lead researcher on a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, Brendan Nyhan explains that backfire is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.” http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire/
Writing in the journal Political Behavior, Nyahn and co-author Jason Reifler observe: “An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions.” “The backfire effects that we found seem to provide further support for the growing literature showing that citizens engage in “motivated reasoning.” While our experiments focused on assessing the effectiveness of corrections, the results show that direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs—an empirical finding with important theoretical implications. (p. 329) “Many citizens seem or unwilling to revise their beliefs in the face of corrective information, and attempts to correct those mistaken beliefs may only make matters worse. Determining the best way to provide corrective information will advance understanding of how citizens process information and help to strengthen democratic debate and public understanding of the political process.”
This is a powerful insight and a significant finding because it supports a simple but profound truth: despite a huge amount of factual evidence to the contrary, people will often deny the truth. Not only will they deny the truth, they will find a way to rationalize factual evidence that conflicts with their belief system and distort that evidence so it confirm their existing belief system. Nyahn and Refiler’s findings are significant because they break this process down and show how this happens on an individual level. They point the way for a closer examination of the reception and consumption of news and information in the newssphere.