Why Watching Fox News Will, In Fact, Rot Your Brain


Here’s an actual fact – borne out by at least seven different scientific studies — that will make certain people squawk: those who watch Fox News are the most consistently misinformed media viewers.

There are two reasons for this: Fox News actively and intentionally transmits false and misleading information, as exemplified in the 2009 internal staff memo from Fox Washington managing editor Bill Sammon, exposed by MediaMatters, ordering correspondents to:

. . . refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.

But also because conservatives, and especially right-wing authoritarian personalities, are most likely to engage in “selective exposure” that University of Alabama psychologist William Hart explains “is the clearest way to look at how people create their own realities, based upon their views of the world.”

The driving force behind “selective exposure” is the desire to alleviate “cognitive dissonance” — the uncomfortable psychological state people experience when their core beliefs are in conflict with what they know to be true. Although liberals do it too, studies show that they are also more open to a variety of information sources.

This is your brain on Fox: Although the term “cognitive dissonance” would not be invented by Leon Festinger for another 34 years, this is exactly what Walter Lippmann was talking about in 1922 when he wrote, in “Public Opinion” referring to the world view of those who are certain in their beliefs, regardless of the actual facts:

Since my moral system rests on my accepted version of the facts, he who denies either my moral judgments or my version of the facts is to me perverse, alien, dangerous. How shall I account for him? The opponent has always to be explained, and the last explanation that we ever look for is that he sees a different set of facts. Such an explanation we avoid because it saps the very foundation of our own assurance that we have seen life steadily and seen it whole.

Although Calbuzz has written about the death of truth and the role of Fox News and the “Rovian Principle,” we are indebted to author Chris Mooney for advancing the idea in a chapter from his new book, “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.” The chapter, posted at AlterNet, is titled: The Science of Fox News: Why Its Viewers are the Most Misinformed and is accompanied by this handy subhead: Authoritarian people have a stronger emotional need for an outlet like Fox, where they can find affirmation and escape factual challenges to their beliefs.

Here’s one juicy nugget:

The psychologist Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba has also documented an above average amount of selective exposure in right wing authoritarians. In one case, he gave students a fake self-esteem test, in which they randomly received either above average or below average scores. Then, everyone — the receivers of both low and high scores — was given the opportunity to say whether he or she would like to read a summary of why the test was valid.

The result was striking: Students who scored low on authoritarianism wanted to learn about the validity of the test regardless of how they did on it. There was virtually no difference between high and low scorers. But among the authoritarian students, there was a big gap: 73 percent of those who got high self-esteem scores wanted to read about the test’s validity, while only 47 percent of those who got low self-esteem scores did.

Authoritarians, Altemeyer concludes, “maintain their beliefs against challenges by limiting their experiences, and surrounding themselves with sources of information that will tell them they are right.”

Mooney walks the reader through studies that looked at misinformation about global warming, Iraq, health care and other subjects that found Fox viewers were the most misinformed and that viewing Fox News aggravates misinformation.

The Fox “effect” probably occurs both because the station churns out falsehoods that conservatives readily accept — falsehoods that may even seem convincing to some liberals on occasion — but also because conservatives are overwhelmingly inclined to choose to watch Fox to begin with.

The heartbreak of treacherous absolutism: Pew and others have found that while people are increasingly turning to the internet for political news, those who rely on television are sharply divided by partisanship, with Republicans overwhelmingly relying on Fox News and Democrats and independents divided among CNN, MSNBC, PBS and the broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC.

Fox News viewers don’t trust any other TV source; those who view other sources distrust only one source – Fox News.

As Lippmann wrote 90 years ago:

It is only when we are in the habit of recognizing our opinions as a partial experience, seen through our stereotypes, that we become truly tolerant of an opponent. Without that habit, we believe in the absolutism of our own vision, and consequently in the treacherous character of all opposition.

This just in: Fox denies the whole thing.

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There are 15 comments for this post

  1. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    In another study I recently read about on HuffingtonPost, conservatives score lower on IQ tests.

    It could be that people with higher IQs tend to seek out more facts and, therefore, have a more nuanced point of view on issues. This would get them kicked out of most Tea Party groups. Or that people with lower IQs tend to gravitate toward simple explanations that conservative media satisfies. I can’t say. But it has often struck me that people who favor authoritarian political or religious organizations like certainty. They don’t like to question, wonder, or learn. They want to KNOW. Certainly, like some churches, Faux Noise feeds into that need. It’s Obama’s fault. Illegal aliens are to blame. What could be simpler? Wrong, of course. But simple.

    The other striking feature of this worldview to me is how desperate the adherents seem to preserve it. They would rather their children not be able to get into college than to let them be educated in the commonly accepted tenants of science or history. They’ll live in complete isolation and a fair amount of privation rather than be exposed to other points of view. They’ll let wives, sisters, and daughters die rather than violate strict religious views. It’s better for a gay or trans child to kill themselves than to come out. It’s a very black-and-white view of reality, and one not open to change. It is, in short, what George Lakoff describes as a strict-father approach to the world. He also describes the ramifications of it fairly well. Unfortunately, I doubt most conservatives will read the professor’s work. Even if they did, they’d probably just think he was wrong.

    • avatar rmh8400 says:

      I suppose you have such a high IQ that you don’t know the first thing about how to read polling data, therefore you would actually reveal your complete ignorance in quoting anything coming from the Huffington Post. In fact, Fox news is by far the highest rated news , and consistently scores better informed viewers (with actual facts, something Lefties like you abhor). What planet did you come from to quote a Huffington Post article as if they have even an inkling of objectivity. From the first assumption, to the last ridiculous statements this is the most easily debunked claptrap I have ever seen. Indeed, your entire diatribe could simply be relabeled and aimed at the Left, media matters, and become true instantly. Then you go too far when you bring in your garbage regarding gays/lesbians etc…proving beyond doubt you are an angry lesbian, anti christian morally depraved welfare queen who never produced anything useful for the world, let alone an employer in your life. don’t ask me how I stumbled upon such a rag as this, suffice to say I still teachable, curious and open minded to the truth. And I am highly sensitive to outright crap disguised as intellectual jabber.

    • avatar dut says:

      I agree with you but the word is tenets not tenants.

  2. avatar chuckmcfadden says:

    In the immortal words of John Stuart Mill: “It is not true that all conservatives are stupid; it is true, however, that all stupid people are conservative.”

  3. avatar chuckmcfadden says:

    8400 is still teachable, curious, and open-minded, and I’m Dolly Parton.

  4. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    8400 is also wrong that I’m a lesbian or have ever taken welfare. Not that I consider either the insult he obviously does. It just doesn’t happen to be true.

    I’m also not sure what polling data has to do with anything I said.

    Or why ratings equate to the quality of information on Faux Noise. Huffington Post, on the other hand, just won a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t believe Faux Noise ever has–at least not that I’ve heard.

    I am, however, vastly amused to see my post described as a “diatribe” in such a heated screed.

  5. avatar GeoHagop says:

    The Fox News motto is like Bart Simpson running for class president, when he said, “My opponent says there are no easy answers. Well, I say he just hasn’t looked hard enough!”

    For the Fox, authoritarian reception of the official WallSt/WarMachine prognostication is the easiest answer to find, since any other answer will bring you ridicule and condemnation from Mount OReillius and pundit bolts from the Hannibal.

  6. avatar Chuck DeVore says:

    The main problem with this piece is that it conflates authoritarianism with conservatism and takes a giant leap by linking authoritarianism with conservative politics and conservative politics with the need to “Deny Science and Reality.”

    I know I risk ridicule by citing my own intellectual credentials before proceeding, but, given the topic, it is appropriate: I am a conservative, have an IQ to the right of the 2% part of the bell-shaped curve, won a couple academic decathlons in high school (biology and chemistry) and graduated with honors from one of the top 15 colleges in the nation.

    That out of the way, let’s examine the main premise: authoritarianism equals conservatism. Now, how one can honestly arrive at this assertion in 2012 America is hard to fathom. Conservatives are generally for less government, taxes and regulations. Authoritarians are for more of the three. Look at the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare. Does it expand government power at the expense of individual liberty? Yes, it does.

    Swinging over to climate science, the area of Fox News’ alleged transgressions, ask yourself, which side in the climate debate most exemplifies authoritarian tendencies? I would argue that it’s the side that says, in effect, “Shut up! The debate is over, you flat-Earther…” (The latter was an actual epithet hurtled at me during a debate on AB 32, California’s attempt to single-handedly cool the globe, China and India notwithstanding.)

    Further, which side is it that then uses the threat of global warming as an excuse to dramatically expand government power to tell people where to live, how to get to work and what sorts of energy they may use? It certainly isn’t small-government conservatives – rather, it’s authoritarian liberals.

    With these observations in mind, the remainder of the analysis in the piece falls to pieces.

    All that said, I couldn’t care less what anyone says in reply because I’m smarter than you. After all, I moved to Texas where I get 46% less state and local government as a percent of the economy (according to the U.S. Census Bureau) and my dollar goes 42% further (Ibid.).

    So there.

    P.S. A hearty “hello” to the CalBuzz crew. If you’re ever out in Austin, I’ll take you out to some good Texas BBQ — after which we can go shooting — with guns that would be highly illegal in California.

    • avatar nslander says:

      Conflating conservatism with authoritarianism is wrong. Because they merely correlate, quite strongly:

      ‘The only distinction that appears tenable is to say that “authoritarianism” is a rather more particular concept than conservative” as far as content is concerned.”Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J., Sanford, R.N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. Norton: NY.

      “Dogmatism has been found to correlate consistently with authoritarianism, political-economic conservatism, and the holding of right wing opinions”
      “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition”, John T. Jost, Jack Glaser, Arie W. Kruglanski, and Frank J. Sulloway

      “To a large extent, this equation has been broadly accepted because of the consistent correlations between measures of authoritarianism and conservatism.”

      And lefties? Apocryphal stories notwithstanding:

      “Authoritarians on the left have been as rare as hen’s teeth in my samples”. (quoted in “Political Conservatism As Motivated Social Cognition”, Kruglanski, Jost, et al.)

      I put the likelihood of your researching the validity of these studies at about, oh, 47%.

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      Moreover, Chuck never deals with the central point: That Fox News viewers are colossally misinformed.

  7. avatar pjhackenflack says:

    Can’t you just overnight the BBQ to us, Chuck?

  8. avatar pjhackenflack says:

    Probably an EIR too…

  9. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Mr. DeVore mistakenly conflates government regulation in the service of the people with authoritarianism.

    But my handy, dandy dictionary defines authoritarianism as “unquestioning obedience to authority.” My mother is a dittohead, Faux Noise devotee, and extremely conservative Republican. Believe me, she fits that description so well that Webster’s could have put her picture next to the definition. The study cited here says she’s not alone. In fact, she’s pretty typical in looking for an “other” to blame for things she doesn’t like.

    Despite posting about the piece linking IQ and conservatism, I don’t think ALL conservatives are dumb. But enough of them are that the ones who aren’t are akin to the old joke about Bill Gates walking into a redneck bar and immediately raising the average income by several million. They’re also usually the ones in charge. The ones who run for office, like Mr. DeVore.

    I’m also real glad to hear about the move to Texas. Frankly, I think it’s a better fit for Mr. DeVore’s politics.

  10. avatar chuckmcfadden says:

    Reminds me of the nasty, nasty crack made when right-wing state schools superintendent Max Rafferty moved from California to Alabama years ago: ‘The IQ of both states went up by 50 points.”

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