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Exposure to Mediated Political Conflict: Effects of Civility of Interaction on Arousal and Memory
Unformatted Document Text:  12 Incivility, perhaps especially because it sounds like a precursor to physical threats, demands that people tune in and consider possible action to avoid harm. These results, so far, should be discouraging to champions of civil debate. They are not, however, particularly different from a large literature about arousal responses to media. When arousal is the criterion, it is the usual case that similarly extreme content wins (Reeves and Nass, 1996). This is true for blood and guts, sexual images, crying babies, exaggerated facial expressions, and pictures of snakes and fire. These images echo primitive stimuli that humans are evolved to consider carefully. Yelling and interrupting, whether in a political discussion or any other interpersonal confrontation, can be added to this list. The case for civility is not lost, however, even if learning is the criterion for communication success. Just as participants in a face-to-face argument are likely to learn more about the rationales for the other side’s views when having a civil exchange as opposed to a blowout argument, so too are television viewers. Those who viewed the less arousing, civil exchange of political views ended up with a better understanding of why the opposition felt as they did. The implications of greater memory for rationales behind oppositional views may be extremely important to the democratic process because of the need for people to be aware of, and hold some degree of respect for, people and views other than their most preferred political choices. The results of these experiments may be viewed as a classic case of a market failure. The kind of presentation of political conflict that attracts audiences and builds television revenues is not necessarily the one that best serves democratic citizens. Although uncivil discussion helps viewers learn relevant differences between the candidates, it detracts from their understanding of the opposition. But it is important to remember that even if market forces were ignored and political programming adhered to face-to-face social norms, it is doubtful such programs would attract large audiences. The effects of civility of political discourse will matter little when no one is watching. And thus we are left with the quandary of how to create political programming that is both interesting to watch, yet still likely to educate the public in important ways.

Authors: Mutz, Diana., Reeves, Byron. and Wise, Kevin.
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12
Incivility, perhaps especially because it sounds like a precursor to physical threats, demands
that people tune in and consider possible action to avoid harm.

These results, so far, should be discouraging to champions of civil debate. They are not,
however, particularly different from a large literature about arousal responses to media. When
arousal is the criterion, it is the usual case that similarly extreme content wins (Reeves and
Nass, 1996). This is true for blood and guts, sexual images, crying babies, exaggerated facial
expressions, and pictures of snakes and fire. These images echo primitive stimuli that humans
are evolved to consider carefully. Yelling and interrupting, whether in a political discussion or
any other interpersonal confrontation, can be added to this list.
The case for civility is not lost, however, even if learning is the criterion for
communication success. Just as participants in a face-to-face argument are likely to learn more
about the rationales for the other side’s views when having a civil exchange as opposed to a
blowout argument, so too are television viewers. Those who viewed the less arousing, civil
exchange of political views ended up with a better understanding of why the opposition felt as
they did. The implications of greater memory for rationales behind oppositional views may be
extremely important to the democratic process because of the need for people to be aware of,
and hold some degree of respect for, people and views other than their most preferred political
choices.
The results of these experiments may be viewed as a classic case of a market failure.
The kind of presentation of political conflict that attracts audiences and builds television
revenues is not necessarily the one that best serves democratic citizens. Although uncivil
discussion helps viewers learn relevant differences between the candidates, it detracts from
their understanding of the opposition. But it is important to remember that even if market forces
were ignored and political programming adhered to face-to-face social norms, it is doubtful such
programs would attract large audiences. The effects of civility of political discourse will matter
little when no one is watching. And thus we are left with the quandary of how to create political
programming that is both interesting to watch, yet still likely to educate the public in important
ways.


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