Selective Perception Is What Makes People Fight About TV

Selective perception describes the phenomenon of only seeing what we want to see. This bias is most glaring when a large group of people see the same events - like a television show.

Have you ever been standing next to a friend, saw a fight happen in real time, and then turned to each other and said, "He/she was crazy." One of you backs the first of the combatants, and the other is entirely on the side of the second. You can't imagine how your friend feels different. Everything you saw seems to back your position. Your friend feels the same.

What you experienced was called selective perception. Give a person a preconception and they will not notice, or soon forget, anything that doesn't back their position. When it comes to private fights, or events witnessed by a small group, it happens often enough. When it comes to events watched by millions of people, like television shows, there are wide gaps in how the same events are perceived by different individuals. I read recaps for a certain show, by a person I respect, and in my opinion she gets every single point the show is making wrong every single time. I don't understand how she never seems to get it.

No rumor mill, please. It isn't anyone on this site. But it is becoming increasingly common in science fiction and fantasy. As genre shows get more complex, and include more points of view, fan division on who is in the right, or why a certain action is taking place, can vary widely. This amounts to no more than snarking when it comes to minor points of story and character. When it gets political, people get heated.

What's funny is, they always have. From the moment tv shows began getting into politics, people started dividing up over their message. A surprisingly divisive show was All in the Family. Running throughout the 1970s, it featured a bigoted American father who constantly butted heads with his grown daughter and her liberal husband. The show sometimes got flack from liberal writers, who claimed that it reinforced bigotry in everyday life. The show creators shot back that the kids were always in the right, and the dad was always in the wrong. Clearly, the show discouraged bigotry by making it the butt of every joke.

Then came a survey that showed they were both right. Liberals watched the show because they believed it reinforced their views. Plenty of bigots did the same. Whenever each group saw the other side score a point on the show, they minimized it or forgot it, while they were happy to remember any point - made by any character - that backed up their own beliefs. Two groups of people saw two different shows.

[Via Archie Bunker's Bigotry, Selective Perception of Events.]