Exemplification: Factors that Distort our Subjective Social Landscapes

Exemplification: Factors that Distort our Subjective Social Landscape

Defining the Problem

Did you know that we tend to judge the whole by our recent experience with its parts? As with the proverbial blind men and the elephant, this tendency can lead us astray.

In turn, we can
(a) Overestimate support for extreme stances, ignoring the more moderate majority in our social landscape
(b) feel like public opinion is shifting against us, dampening our sense of political efficacy,
(c) overestimate support for our own, extreme, views.

Psychologists and communication scientists refer to this process as exemplification. Recent and memorable experiences are judged to be more common, even though these experiences are (typically) memorable because they are uncommon.

This is not a conscious process. It’s hard to estimate base-rates-hard to estimate population-level information. We rely on numbers when we can, but we also rely on our own experiences. This reliance on personal experience may have served us well when the only populations we had to be concerned about were local and the only experiences we had were face to face – unmediated by any technology, temporal distance, or physical distance.

The modern media environment, however, allows us to access a wide array of views, at any time, day or night. This in turn allows our media selection decisions to influence our perceptions of the wider world.

For example, if you read a news article taking a conservative {liberal} stance on a political issue, you may, probably unconsciously, revise your estimates of the number of Americans sharing the article’s stance accordingly (Sude, Knobloch-Westerwick, Robinson, & Westerwick, 2019; Westerwick, Sude, Robinson, Knobloch-Westerwick, 2020). Voluntarily read a liberal article? The longer that you spend reading it, the more Americans you may estimate take a liberal stance on the article’s topic. Swaying peceptions of public opinion is one function of the fake social media profiles created by trolls.

Even the number of arguments you see in favor of a stance on a controversial issue can impact your estimates of a view’s popularity (Zerback, Koch, & Krämer, 2015)!

However, as Zerback et al. (2015) found, if you yourself are convinced by the arguments, you may further engage in projection: a tendency to assume that other people share your views.

As my own research has found, perceptions of public opinion can have social consequences. For example, the more that people perceive that others agree with them, the more they may feel licensed to hold extreme views; the less they feel that other people agree with them, the more moderate they become (Sude et al., 2019; Westerwick et al., 2020; Neubaum & Krämer, 2016).

Further, while understanding that other people disagree with them can encourage your user to be more moderate, feeling that they are in a minority can discourage your user from speaking up, out of fear of social sanctions. This means that your user may never express their view, stopping it from influencing others’ perceptions of public opinion. This can lead to a spiraling process in which one side speaks up boldly because they see people who share their views speaking up and another hides their true opinion because they falsely believe they are in the minority.

Solving the Problem

So, provide context!

How common are people taking that article’s/blog post’s/meme’s stance, really?
How common are people taking as extreme a stance as that message?
How common are people making the arguments in that message?
How common are people citing that message’s sources?

For each of the questions above, try to provide population-specific information. Is the view common on your platform? Common in terms of polling data? In particular, to challenge polarization, you could show that people who share social identities (partisan or cross partisan) with the user hold a diversity of opinions regarding the topic. This diversity signals that the user does not have to adopt a specific view to fit in (see discussion of social identity cues).

Present this information and while you won’t overcome exemplification and projection processes entirely, you can at least prevent them from being the only processes that impact a user’s perceptions of the world.

Of course, you may be happy if some views remain quiet. For example, alerting neo-Nazis that your platform harbors sympathizers may not be in line with either your brand or the public good! Perhaps, however, with attention to how the content of your site shapes users’ perceptions of public opinion, you can identify “trouble spots” among your users, and intervene appropriately.

Social Identity Cues

Social reward and punishment can shape our personal views

Self-Expression Affordances

The way we express ourselves shapes our views.