Selective Perception | What the Super Bowl and Politics Have in Common

Selective Perception | What the Super Bowl and Politics Have in Common

Written By: David Kelly
Published 2 February 2019

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Tomorrow, the New England Patriots will take on the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53. The matchup features a rematch of Super Bowl 36 in which New England quarterback Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl, 17 years ago. The veteran lead New England Patriots will be playing in their fourth Super Bowl appearance in five years. In just three years, the Rams have:

In just three years, the Rams have:

  • Moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles.
  • Picked at the top of the NFL Draft, selecting current quarterback Jared Goff.
  • Hired a new head coach.
  • Appeared in their first Super since 2002.

Even though my team will not be playing, the Pittsburgh Steelers, I will be gathering to watch with a group of friends. I can assuredly say that virtually everyone I will be watching with will be rooting for the LA Rams.
This will be the position of virtually every Pittsburgh resident. Why? Pittsburgh has a vicious rivalry with New England. As a matter of fact, majority of NFL fans want to see the Rams win but think the Patriots will. A recent poll shows that 75 percent of NFL fans want to see the Rams win but 69 percent think that the Patriots will come out on top.

Growing up and living in Pittsburgh, PA in the 2000s and 2010s came with three certainties.

  • The first certainty is that it would be dreary for a good portion of any year. Ranking only behind Seattle and Buffalo for the top spot, Pittsburgh is tied for 2nd place with Portland based upon what is known as the dreary index.
  • The second certainty was that you and most everyone you know will be ultra-passionate, over the top Pittsburgh Steelers fans. When I say over the top, I mean that as no exaggeration.
  • The third certainty is that in addition to being over-the-top Steelers fans, you and virtually everyone else you know will be avid New England Patriots haters.

I am still a Pittsburgh Steeler fan, but only to a certain extent. In all actuality, whether the team wins or loses makes little difference in my life. The same is to be said with tomorrow’s Super Bowl. I have no vested interest in the outcome of the game. I still have my business and clients, PORP, and music career. This will all remain the same no matter who wins and who loses. I will be able to watch the game as mere entertainment. Which at the end of the day, is all football or any other sport really counts for.

My experience watching games with friends and family over the past few years has lead me to make many observations. I have become intrigued by how non-objective most viewers of games are. Blatant penalties called on the Steelers lead to screaming obscenities about the referees at the TV. Dirty hits on opposing players lead to cheers. Yet, dirty hits on Steelers players lead to calls for criminal assault charges. I expect the same tomorrow, but replace Steelers with Rams.

If you really want to experience just how bad this can get, attend an NFL game when two rivals are playing. The environment can become extremely violent and toxic. No, I am not just talking about violence taking place on the field. I am referring to violence in the stands among fans of opposing teams. It seems that the majority of those in attendance lose sight of the fact that sports are merely entertainment. In the heat of moment, fans seem to lose total context of this reality. At times, it can feel that the 70,000+ fans watching the game are more invested into the outcome than the players. Fights breaking out in the stands have been a problem for NFL teams for quite some time. A 2016 article from The Washington Post details how this quietly became an issue for the NFL. It appears that our highly tribalistic nature produces an extreme us vs. them mentality that dates back to the earliest forms of human civilization.

Perhaps it was around the same time that I began to notice this same, subjective, non-reality based view taking place with the 2016 Election. The divisiveness and herd mentality was like that of football, but on steroids. My friends on the right and left ends of the political spectrum would send me articles covering the same story. In each story, it seemed as if the respective authors appeared to live in different worlds.

“All Trump voters are racist!” proclaimed Hillary supporters.  “Lock her up!” chanted Trump supporters. The delusion was strong in supporters of both camps.

Die-hard sports fans, partisans, and anyone that is emotionally invested in a certain outcome all have one thing in common – they have lost the ability to perceive reality in an objective manner. Yes, reread the latter half of that sentence again. As you read this article, you may be a loyal sports fan or partisan and therefore skeptical. This is precisely how I felt for many years before becoming aware of how powerful this phenomenon can obscure our view of reality. However, does that not prove the very nature of this phenomenon’s existence?  

Selective Perception

This loss of comprehending logic or reality that is objective can be explained through selective perception. Selective perception is a perceptual process that is explained in behavioral psychology. This perceptual process takes place when a person perceives only what they desire to, setting aside or outright ignoring other perceptions or viewpoints.

Selective perception is in many ways a form of top down processing. Top down processing takes place when we work from the big picture to the tiny details. For example, we hold a worldview and this worldview influences how we gather sensory data. Existing knowledge and experience influence the ways in which we perceive new information and experience.

There are two main forms of selective perception: perceptual vigilance and perceptual defense. Perceptual vigilance refers to the process of when the individual recognizes the stimuli that hold significance to them in some way. Perceptual defense takes place when the individual creates a barrier between themselves and the stimuli. This is done in an effort to protect the individual from having awareness of the stimuli’s existence.

Researchers indicate that those that utilize high levels of perceptual defense have a perceptual wall that serves as their filtering mechanism. They use this wall to keep stimuli seen as dangerous or unwanted out of their awareness. The building and maintenance of a perceptual wall can only work to a certain degree, especially in the information age. At some point, those who use high levels of perceptual defense are bound to come across people or circumstances that will make them acutely aware of the stimuli they have long been running from.

In sports such as football, selective perception has no real consequences. At least most of the time. A football fanatics inability to form coherent views of reality matter very little to the outcome of the game. They matter even less in the bigger picture of society. Whether or not the pass interference call was justified or not is rather trivial outside of the outcome of the game itself. In comparison, selective perception in politics can have devastating consequences. This can currently be seen in political communication dynamics.

Selective Perception in Politics

The media has become and is becoming only more fragmented. The model of segmentation in media reporting has become quite popular. The reason for this popularity? Money. Media sources can make higher profits by spoon-feeding their audience content that they are likely to agree with. Make no mistake, media sources understand their audiences.  Media sources, in large part, make their revenue off of advertising. Clicks and views keep them in business. By serving content that their audience is likely to agree with, more clicks and views result in higher revenues from advertisers.

This in part explains why the same story can be covered vastly different on Fox News and MSNBC. Each network is catering towards a different audience. Therefore, they are putting a spin on their story that their audience is more likely to enjoy. We need to remember that mega-networks like Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC will do anything to increase their bottom line profits. While this segmentation has been great for the networks’ pocketbooks, it has led to an increasingly polarized American public. Unfortunately this model leads to reinforcing feedback loops between how the source reports the news and how their audience perceives the news.

This political communication model seems to only be further intensified under President Trump. For example, policies like building The Wall have been driven by the false premise that undocumented illegal immigrants commit more crime than native born citizens. This is simply not true, undocumented immigrants commit far less crime per-capita than native born citizens. Another example would be Trump’s insistence that climate change is a Chinese hoax. This relentless climate change denial comes while meta-analysis of peer-reviewed scientific journals shows that 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree on the fact that climate-warming trends over the past century are likely due to human activities.

In 2009 Trump was co-signing a letter with other business leaders that were calling for “meaningful and effective measures to control climate change.” Did Trump suddenly change his mind about climate change? Multiple recorded instances have stated that Trump is influenced based upon news coverage of his administration through cable TV instead of actual intelligence briefings. Trump has many times mentioned that he watches Fox News. Unsurprisingly, this was the number 1 news source among Trump voters.

Could it be that Trump and his administration base their policy decisions and initiatives off their base voters beliefs and attitudes? Or does Trump constantly change his mind about his own agenda? In either case, these are definite examples of selective perception. Many of the policies that Trump, and in fact the majority of politicians bring forward, are not found in factual or objective reality. The incentives for politicians to behave in this manner are high. By using selective perception to cater to specific parts of the electorate, candidates can drum up support among their base in order to receive votes. In a world with truth seemingly under constant assault, propaganda and misinformation reigns king among highly segmented audiences.

President Trump is perhaps the easiest example to point to in current American political culture. He may indeed cater to his base through selective perception better than any other political figure in the world currently. For example, simply observe the way he reacts and engages with media reports on Twitter. Trump will shape even the worst of his administration’s losses as wins. Trump will be attacked by his opposition, leading to his supporters coming to his defense. The large portion of the news media will often times then take the bait on a simple tweet and cover that, interrupting their original news cycle.

What Trump is doing here is shaping the public conversation by creating this type of feedback loop that is laden with selective perception. The hardcore Trump supporter will take his word as truth even when it is far from objective reality. Trump understands and constantly is monitoring his base. I would say that it may not be a stretch to believe that Trump caters policy decisions towards appeasing his base. The highly dangerous truth we are now faced with is that these types of feedback loops can come to create new realities molded out of selective perception. This quite obviously is a detriment to setting any real form of policy agenda. Policy should be based on objective reality, not selective perception.

Selective perception induced feedback loops might also threaten a democracy’s very existence. Those in the deliberative democracy school of thought believe that policy decisions should be product of reasonable and fair discussion among citizens. During deliberation, citizens debate and argue over claims that are all based upon securing a better public for all. These deliberations therefore will deliver policy that ensures what is best for the public. This sounds like a good setup right?

In order for a deliberative democracy to work, the exchange of real truth and information would need to take place. This is something that all of us at PORP are fighting for. The marketplace of ideas would need to be a reality. The highly fragmented media has led to segmented reporting of news, data, and science reinforced through selective perception. This creates a vicious feedback loop between politicians and policymakers, the media, and the American public. If politicians then base their policy platforms and policy-making off of what will get them votes, this by definition threatens democracy.

Selective perception is not just another psychology key term to remember for an exam. It is not just important to help us understand sports fans or partisans in politics. Selective perception in many ways threatens our democracy as the relationship between politicians, the media, and voters continues to experience further fragmentation. It quite literally creates further division. Politicians like Donald Trump are not going to suddenly change how they behave. The incentives are too high. We must hold the media accountable in understanding how they are playing a part in creating an extremely polarized and divided American public.

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