Selective Exposure in the Internet Age: The Interaction between Anxiety and Information Utility



The rise of the Internet forces scholars to reevaluate the frequency and nature of political information seeking in the contemporary period. The functionality of the Internet makes passive exposure more difficult, and selective information seeking easier, than in the past. However, people may also use the Internet in a new and directed way—to arm themselves with information to express and defend their views either online or in the real world. The central question we explore in this paper is what explains balanced versus biased information seeking in the era of the Internet? We combine insights from Sears and Freedman (1967) with newer work on emotion to predict motivated selectivity: focusing specifically on the interaction between anxiety and information utility. Our central theoretical claim is that anxiety does not simply boost any information seeking; it triggers information seeking that is useful for addressing the problem at hand. Anxiety alone, therefore, does not guarantee a balanced information search. When counterattitudinal information is useful for some reason—for example, to defend their own opinions to others who may disagree—anxious citizens should seek it out. As a consequence, these subjects should learn more specific information about where each candidate stands on the issues. In an experiment we find support for these hypotheses. We conclude that while today's flexible Internet environment may permit selectivity, balanced seeking should still occur under a fairly common set of circumstances.