The sheer volume of information in our daily lives makes it impossible to focus on everything that affects us.
Amidst the grayness of this information, occasional messages stand out. Some break the pattern. They defy expectations. They spark curiosity. We pay more attention to these messages. Something about them screams “different, new, or unique”.
Advertisers and advertising agencies spend a huge portion of their time and budgets trying to harness this principle. Messages that break the pattern help gain attention. They also help people remember information longer.
However, dissonant messages do not necessarily hold people’s attention, nor do people automatically find them motivating or believable. If your minister came to Sunday services in a clown suit, people would notice. They would talk about it. Whether they found the minister credible would depend on whether the gimmick reinforced his message that week or was simply what advertisers call a “borrowed-attention device.”
Self-Interest and WII-FM
Another powerful psychological filter is self-interest. As a friend of mine used to joke, everyone’s favorite radio station is WII-FM (also known as “What’s in it for me?”).
Every parent knows that children “hear what they want to hear.” The same principle applies to parents. All perception is selective – even among those who collect information to transmit to us. This produces a skewed version of external realities.
Selective Perception: Reinforcing Our Own World View
Most of us usually pay attention to information that reinforces our beliefs more than we do to information that challenges them. As a result, any individual has, at best, a partial and imperfect picture of external reality.
We also tend to pay more attention to messages that affect us personally than we do to those that do not affect us. When we need a new car, suddenly we see car ads everywhere. We start reading them. We research safety ratings. We actively investigate. Once we have bought a new vehicle, our interest in reading more diminishes. We focus our attention on other things.
Trust and Fairness
Whether people act on the information they receive depends to a large extent on their world view which acts as a filter when assessing its credibility. Do they believe the source was fair? Do they trust the information and the source bringing it to them?
The higher the stakes, the more thoroughly people research topics, the less people filter information. But our brains subconsciously filter out most of the great tide of information that inundates us daily. It’s all about survival and earning a living.