Effects of priming social goals on personal interest in television news.

Author:Carpentier, Francesca R. Dillman

Because the number of media choices has markedly increased since the days of the big three television networks, consumers are less restricted by news source availability in choosing news that most interests them. Perhaps because of the increase in choices, consumers are now more likely to select news that is of personal interest rather than stories in the news agenda that traditional gatekeepers determine to be important (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2002; Tewksbury, 2003, see McCombs & Shaw, 1972 for agenda setting). This trend implies that consumers might avoid news that is not of obvious personal relevance.

As Tewksbury (2003) suggests, selection of news based primarily on personal significance might impact the nation's democratic health, in that individuals might become ill-informed about issues of public importance. Therefore, media selectivity research is paramount to understanding how an individual's motivations to attend to certain news stories are shaped by internal, as well as external forces. This investigation tests how well an outside force--an extrinsic epistemic motivation--can influence interest in a news story and trigger information-gathering behavior in an otherwise personally irrelevant topic.

Epistemic Motivations

Kruglanski (1989, 1996) describes epistemic activity, or the gathering of knowledge, as a basic information-gathering process that, at its foundation, involves uncertainty and the reduction of that uncertainty. Uncertainty can be any level of curiosity about an object, event or issue. When uncertainty occurs, a lay hypothesis is often formed and information is gathered to evaluate the hypothesis. When an acceptable degree of confidence is reached that the hypothesis has been adequately addressed, the uncertainty is reduced and information gathering will cease.

Typically, the most stable and consistent informational needs arise from uncertainties of an intrinsic nature (Chance, 1992; Deci & Ryan, 1980; Miller et al., 2001; Pederson, 2003, see also Berlyne, 1960). These intrinsic uncertainties spark information seeking to make decisions about some intrapersonal issue (Kruglanski, 1989).

For example, individuals often seek information to relieve personal uncertainties such as monitoring threats that might spell personal injury for them in the near future. To the extent these individuals turn to media to monitor these threats, they engage in what Lasswell (1948) called environmental surveillance--a fundamental need fulfilled by mass media. Intrinsic curiosity can also stem from a need to manage self-confidence, which might lead to consumption of current affairs news in order to feel like they're "in the know." Likewise, a need to prolong one's lifespan might lead to consumption of health news.

Intrinsically motivated individuals tend to demonstrate great interest in personally relevant information (Renninger, 2000), and are active in their exploration of this information (Shah & Kruglanski, 2000). More important, intrinsically motivated individuals tend to behave, i.e., seek information, in a manner highly committed to and congruent with their goals, due to a strong connection between their behavior, their intrinsic goal, and their commitment to that goal (Kruglanski et al., 2002). This profile fits well with the selective behavior seen with today's media users (e.g., Althaus & Tewksbury, 2002). Unfortunately, there is little news content creators can do to attract this type of user, save making their stories sensational, or spinning the stories to appear more personally relevant and useful to the individual ("news you can use").

Fortunately, intrinsic motivations are not the only kind of motivations that influence information seeking. Informational needs can also be driven by extrinsic forces (e.g., Brief & AIdag, 1977; Kruglanski, 1996). Extrinsic motivations arise from a source external to the individual, such that the individual engages in a task for reasons beyond personal fulfillment (Kruglanski, 1996). Common extrinsic motivations deal with external rewards that motivate individuals to perform information-seeking activities, such as a monetary reward for passing an exam (see Ryan & Deci, 2000 for additional examples). To offer another example, a mayor about to be interviewed about the city water plant might feel a need to learn about the water treatment process--a need that originated from a social goal, rather than a fascination with water treatment.

As with intrinsic goals, any information that is believed to help achieve extrinsic goals will be actively sought (Kruglanski, 1989). In contrast to an intrinsic motivation however, an extrinsically-derived motivation typically exists to fulfill the defined external goal (i.e., finishing the interview about the water plant), and so, once that goal is met, the extrinsic motivation dies. For this reason, extrinsic motivations are viewed as less permanent, less effective, and therefore less appealing than their intrinsic counterparts in affecting information gain (Brief & Aldag, 1977; Chance, 1992; Deci & Ryan, 1980; Miller et al., 2001; Pederson, 2003). That said, external motivators can be useful in attracting attention to situations where pre-existing interest is low (e.g., Chance, 1992; Dillman Carpentier, 2000, 2001). One way external motivators might increase interest in personally irrelevant information is through priming existing knowledge about a topic via the introduction of an extrinsic goal.


Priming, as it is applied in media psychology (Roskos-Ewoldsen, Roskos-Ewoldsen, & Dillman Carpentier, 2008), is based on network models of semantic memory. Influenced by artificial intelligence work (e.g., Quillian, 1968), early theorizers created models of how humans store, retrieve and use knowledge similar to the way machines process information. The earliest of these models was based on the idea that information is stored as concepts that are linked to each other in some way as to create a network of related concepts (Collins & Quillian, 1969). Later studies expanded upon and refined this model to account for differing strengths of association between concepts, different ways of categorizing and interpreting new information, and differing ways of retrieving old information (e.g., Collins & Loftus, 1975; Neely, 1977). The current model depicts a complex network with many connections between concepts in memory. Visually, these concepts are represented as nodes, connected with lines that represent the relation between each node. The length of the line between two nodes represents the relative strength of association between the concepts. The closer the nodes are drawn, the stronger their association.

Central to network models is the idea that each node has an activation threshold. If the node's level of activation exceeds its threshold, the node fires. When a node fires, its activation spreads through its network, influencing the activation levels of its associated nodes. The result is that active nodes are more easily retrieved from memory. This spreading activation is, in essence, the priming effect. In other words, activating or "priming" one concept in memory results in increased activation of other related concepts, making those related concepts more accessible for use in later information processing.

Social psychologists began using priming in the 1970s to explore how outside influences affect our judgment formation. For example, a classic priming experiment by Srull and Wyer (1979) used sentence construction with aggressive concepts to prime participants. Participants were asked to construct a sentence using three of four words ("he," "Sally," "hit," and "kicked"). Only two sentences can be constructed from the four words ("He hit Sally," "He kicked Sally"), both of which are aggressive. After completing the priming task, participants engaged in what they thought was a second, unrelated study in which they judged an ambiguously described person. The resulting judgments were skewed towards hostile interpretations, due to the increased salience of aggressive concepts in their memory. This is one example of research that uses just a few words to create a priming effect (e.g., Srull & Wyer, 1980).

In media studies, exposure to images or repeated themes within entertainment or news content have been shown to prime concepts of ethics, hostility, sexuality, racial or gender stereotypes (e.g., Berkowitz, 1984; Dillman Carpentier, Knobloch-Westerwick, & Blumhoff, 2007; Domke, 2001; Valentino, Hutchings, & White, 2002). As a result of these primes, subsequent behaviors were skewed towards the activated concept (e.g., behavior was more hostile), and subsequent judgments were based more heavily on the activated concept (e.g., first impressions of an individual adhered to racial stereotypes). In addition, extensive research has shown that repeated exposure to certain issues in news (e.g., defense preparedness) can trigger related concepts (national defense) in memory. Subsequent evaluations of political leaders are thus highly influenced by criteria (e.g., performance on defense issues) related to the trigger (e.g., lyengar & Kinder, 1987; Krosnick & Kinder, 1990; Pan & Kosicki, 1997).

These media studies follow the social psychology tradition of examining priming effects on judgment formation, focusing on the activation of abstract concepts (e.g., economy, sexuality). However, other goals besides those dealing with evaluation can be primed, thus activating related concepts in memory (e.g., Bargh, 1997; Chartrand & Bargh, 1996). For example, Shah and Kruglanski (2003) were able to prime an informational goal, which provided an extrinsic motivation to gather information. They found that "It]he longer participants pursued a goal through a given means, the higher the likelihood that these attainment behaviors primed the goal they were pursuing" (p. 1120). Here, goals are seen as knowledge structures, or cognitive...

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