The widespread accessibility of news is no longer an opportunity for flashy titles in magazines or newspapers. Nowadays, local, national and international events are disseminated daily by a variety of outlets where reports of facts are often intermixed with analyses illustrating different viewpoints. Although undeniable that most consumers of news can easily access information by reading newspapers and magazines in print and online, listening to radio, or watching cable and network television, often contents that fit consumers' expectations drive the choice of outlets, whereas habits develop to ensure the continued use of such outlets (see Jomini, 2008; Knobloch-Westerwick & Hoplamazian, 2012). Indeed, consumers tend to be devoted to a few outlets, whose repeated use often occurs when the information displayed by each outlet matches in content and format (e.g., reliance on emotional versus impassive language) consumers' beliefs and expectations. Continuous, 'selective exposure' to like-minded viewpoints can lead not only to polarization, whereby one's pre-existing views and opinions are strengthened (Myers & Bishop, 1970), but also to selective disregard of facts that are inconsistent with such views. An emblematic example of the costs of habitual 'selective exposure' to information is illustrated by the publicly displayed shock and initial disbelief of many conservatives who found themselves unable to reconcile the victory of Obama during the recent presidential election with the evidence they had been fed by conservative media outlets.
Although a reader may be interested in the accidental circumstances that are responsible for forming and initially shaping consumers' expectations, the substantive question that Radical distortion, a book written by John W. Reich, addresses is how such expectations become ingrained in the modus operandi of consumers of information to the point of serving as habits. Radical distortion, however, does not focus on consumers' habits in general, but on those associated with extreme views. Of course, one may question whether the middle can be judged as a 'reality zone', a place where facts and reasonable analyses/interpretations of such facts are displayed for public consumption. One may also ask whether facts can be reliably separated from interpretations both by those who broadcast them and by those who consume them, but at the extreme points of the distortion continuum, these challenging conundrums seem to matter little.
In Radical distortion, Reich distinguishes between radical-supporting speech and radical-attacking speech, and reviews several captivating examples of each type. According to Reich, radical-attacking speech is the primary culprit of existing intolerance and hate for viewpoints that are different from those one holds and for the media (including people) that carry them to audiences. Namely, nothing particularly counterproductive exists in having strongly held beliefs about a specific issue and in judging such beliefs as more just, truthful, etc. than opposing ones. What seems to be truly problematic for Reich is radical-attacking speech, where strongly-held beliefs are coupled with the intention to hurt, undermine, or even obliterate opposing beliefs and their carriers. He proposes that endorsement of this type of speech is primarily responsible for 'radical hearing', a tendency to discount quickly as 'dangerous products of evil doers' facts and viewpoints inconsistent with those one holds, which often embodies a reflexive reaction to information that may threaten one's self-concept. Put simply, selective exposure leads to polarization of views and attitudes (see Meyers & Bishop, 1970), which then supports extreme forms of intolerance and discrimination.
In Radical distortion, description is accompanied by an attempt to understand causes of radical-attacking speech. The reader may conclude that, once again, an insubstantial use or even absence of critical thinking is the recognized culprit for both 'radical hearing' and his cellmate, radical-attacking speech. Behind all these unpleasant, if not dangerous, phenomena are, according to Reich, the processes upon which the human mind relies daily to manage information. What is one to do when the real culprit, after all layers are peeled, is the mere tool that allows one to exist (i.e., the brain)? Reich proposes that remedies can arise from one's awareness and understanding of the sources of 'radical hearing' and radical-attacking speech, followed by a conscious decision to avoid relying on such sources in everyday life. Thus, according to the author of Radical distortion, we are not doomed as a species if we simply rely more on higher-level cognitive functions and less on knee-jerk reactions.
Although behavioral and physiological evidence exists that the frontal lobes can override the disrupting influence of ancient portions of the brain (e.g., the amygdala), which are involved in reflex-like, emotion-laden reactions, evidence also exists that influence of the latter is faster, quite widespread, and not always easy to identify (see Lee et al., 2012; Lewis & Todd, 2007; Vaitl, Schienle, & Stark, 2005). Furthermore, important to recognize is not only that most of our thought processes are not within the immediate reach of the conscious mind, but also that we are social animals whose propensity for mimicry is quite powerful. Two such examples of experimental evidence require caution in judging the effectiveness of the remedies suggested by Reich:
(1) When researchers flashed a sketch of a pair of fearful eyes, too briefly for participants consciously to perceive it, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans detected enhanced activation of the participants' amygdala (Whalen, et al., 2004). Since neural projections that send information from the amygdala to the cortex are more numerous than those that send information from the cortex to the amygdala, and sensory information can directly reach the amygdala through the thalamus, bypassing the cortex (LeDoux, 2002), it is not unreasonable to assume that our emotions are more likely to control our thoughts and actions than the reverse.
(2) When researchers observed pairs of participants and confederates (research assistants playing the role of participants) working beside one another, participants tended to imitate the behavior of their confederates (e.g., rubbing faces if the confederates did so; Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). This phenomenon, named the 'Chameleon Effect', illustrates the ease with which people simulate the behavior of others without being aware of the sources of their behavior.
When evidence of emotional processing based on a pathway that sends sensory/perceptual information directly to the amygdala, bypassing the cortex, is coupled with evidence illustrating that mimicry is largely an automatic action whose sources are not within the grasp of awareness, then the magnitude of challenges that the cortex and higher-order thinking face in controlling 'radical hearing' begin to be understood. Radical distortion is a valuable attempt at making such challenges known.
Overall, Reich's book is engaging and instructive. The text summarizes psychological evidence on polarization and its consequences. As such, the book can be added to a reading list of a broad array of college courses, including those that cover social psychology, journalism, political science, and sociology. Besides audiences at institutions of higher learning, Reich's book can be of interest to readers who want to understand expressions of unyielding intolerance towards views and actions that are merely different from those that a person embraces. For instance, imagine a reader who wants to know how a person deeply committed to a view whose core values include compassion and tolerance can be so intolerant of those whose views or lifestyles do not fit his/hers. Radical distortion can shed light on this conundrum. Of course, given the current climate of intolerance towards diversity in a variety of arenas, including religion, politics and ways of life, yet to be demonstrated is the effectiveness of the suggested remedies.
© 2013 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Ashford University