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Exposure to Mediated Political Conflict: Effects of Civility of Interaction on Arousal and Memory
Unformatted Document Text:  6 in real life. Although the violation is not a real physical threat, humans are evolved to respond as if they were real because of the relative newness of mediated experience in course of evolutionary history. There is no switch in the brain that can instantly determine that simulated physical threats are inconsequential. Instead, the default, especially when negative consequences are possible, is to treat the stimulus as real. Recent research on human-media interaction supports this claim. In a series of experimental studies involving human responses to both computers and television, Reeves and Nass (1996) have replicated many basic social psychological findings using media as replacements for actual people. For example, in the real world, motion demands attention, especially for objects coming toward a person. When mediated motion is directed at viewers, it causes physical activation in the brain in the same way as if the moving object were actually present. And just as people experience stronger emotions when another human being comes into their personal space, so too mediated representations of other people who appear closer also cause stronger emotions. Other studies show that the same differences in brain activation that are associated with positive and negative real life experiences are also found when people view positive and negative events via media. In studies of human-computer interaction, Reeves and Nass (1996) find that just as people are polite to those who ask questions about their own performance (and thus provide more positive evaluations), people are also polite to computers who ask about their own performance relative to what they tell other computers. Moreover, this finding is common regardless of computer expertise; it holds among those who work in the computer industry as well as computer novices. This indicates that these primitive responses are not a function of naivete but rather are responses common to all. Reeves and Nass conclude that interactions with media are "fundamentally social and natural." In other words, "People expect media to obey a wide range of social and natural rules. All of the rules come from the world of interpersonal interaction." The explanation for these surprising findings is that people’s brains have fundamentally not adapted to 21 st century technologies. As a result there are "vestiges of old brains in modern thinking," and people’s default reactions tend to be primitive and automatic. Viewers "unconsciously ignore fabrication and expect reality, as if the technology itself were invisible" (p. 13). Arousal and Memory If televised conflicts are experienced as if they were real, then political conflict, incivility and close camera distances should produce greater physiological arousal in viewers. Interpersonal disagreement in face-to-face settings causes arousal, and heightened arousal has the potential to increase general attention, while simultaneously distracting viewers from thoughtful processing of substantive details (see, e.g., Loftus and Burns 1982, Detteman and Ellis 1972, Christianson 1986, Christianson et al. 1986). Although memory for a main theme or an entire event is often enhanced by arousal (e.g., Bradley et al. 1992), findings on short-term memory for detailed information suggest negative effects. Thus we predicted that recall of specific issue arguments should be adversely affected by violations of norms for interpersonal discourse. As attention is directed toward the

Authors: Mutz, Diana., Reeves, Byron. and Wise, Kevin.
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6
in real life. Although the violation is not a real physical threat, humans are evolved to respond
as if they were real because of the relative newness of mediated experience in course of
evolutionary history. There is no switch in the brain that can instantly determine that simulated
physical threats are inconsequential. Instead, the default, especially when negative
consequences are possible, is to treat the stimulus as real.
Recent research on human-media interaction supports this claim. In a series of
experimental studies involving human responses to both computers and television, Reeves and
Nass (1996) have replicated many basic social psychological findings using media as
replacements for actual people. For example, in the real world, motion demands attention,
especially for objects coming toward a person. When mediated motion is directed at viewers, it
causes physical activation in the brain in the same way as if the moving object were actually
present. And just as people experience stronger emotions when another human being comes
into their personal space, so too mediated representations of other people who appear closer
also cause stronger emotions. Other studies show that the same differences in brain activation
that are associated with positive and negative real life experiences are also found when people
view positive and negative events via media.
In studies of human-computer interaction, Reeves and Nass (1996) find that just as
people are polite to those who ask questions about their own performance (and thus provide
more positive evaluations), people are also polite to computers who ask about their own
performance relative to what they tell other computers. Moreover, this finding is common
regardless of computer expertise; it holds among those who work in the computer industry as
well as computer novices. This indicates that these primitive responses are not a function of
naivete but rather are responses common to all.
Reeves and Nass conclude that interactions with media are "fundamentally social and
natural." In other words, "People expect media to obey a wide range of social and natural
rules. All of the rules come from the world of interpersonal interaction." The explanation for
these surprising findings is that people’s brains have fundamentally not adapted to 21
st
century
technologies. As a result there are "vestiges of old brains in modern thinking," and people’s
default reactions tend to be primitive and automatic. Viewers "unconsciously ignore fabrication
and expect reality, as if the technology itself were invisible" (p. 13).
Arousal and Memory
If televised conflicts are experienced as if they were real, then political conflict, incivility
and close camera distances should produce greater physiological arousal in viewers.
Interpersonal disagreement in face-to-face settings causes arousal, and heightened arousal has
the potential to increase general attention, while simultaneously distracting viewers from
thoughtful processing of substantive details (see, e.g., Loftus and Burns 1982, Detteman and
Ellis 1972, Christianson 1986, Christianson et al. 1986).

Although memory for a main theme or an entire event is often enhanced by arousal
(e.g., Bradley et al. 1992), findings on short-term memory for detailed information suggest
negative effects. Thus we predicted that recall of specific issue arguments should be adversely
affected by violations of norms for interpersonal discourse. As attention is directed toward the


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