By Tony Samson
IN SURFING THE NEWS, we often skip items that do not affect us directly or pique our personal interest. So, a winter vortex in Northeast America is merely noted in passing, unless relatives are caught up in it in their travels there. When reporting international crises, the local news slants the coverage in terms of compatriots that were injured.
Selective perception in psychology refers to what reality we view, and how we remember it. We pay attention only to details that concern us directly. Thus, in a group picture, we search out our own faces in the crowd around us. The selfie is a short-cut to putting our photo on center stage.
For busy executives or politicians, selective perception has long been outsourced. Some entity serves as a clipping service to search for news that pertains to a company or personality, maybe including the industry and competition. These items are searched and compiled for the client’s morning read. The term “clipping” itself harks back from an older time when newspapers dominated media coverage and stories were clipped with scissors and compiled in one bulging folder for the day.
Now, this physical task is facilitated by the net with its search engines relying on key words to algorithmically troll the stories in cyberspace. This same technology allows phrases to be checked for plagiarism. Using “mentions” (name of a company or personality, industry, or product category) in media coverage ensures finding all news stories dealing with a subject.
Does this excerpting of news present a balanced view of reality? Is anyone paying attention to stories other than the one mentioned in them? Is it always about you?
The clipper can get a warped view of media’s interest in him. He is bound to define the state of his image, often exaggerated on the negative side, by a very biased sample of news that has been preselected.
With the burgeoning blogs, tweets, social networks piled on top of traditional media (not to mention insider info and gossip) and twenty-four-hour news cycles on TV and radio, the possibility of getting mentions and clips can only rise. A fresh crisis can be counted on to overtake whatever story is worrying to a news subject.
Even the most insignificant news gets in the mix to fill up the ever-hungrier beast of news content. On the rise are unworthy news subjects, even someone whose mugging is caught in the ubiquitous CCTV. (And he wasn’t even resisting arrest.)
Perversely, it can then be a cause of dismay if a company or personality continues to be unreported and ignored in this assault of media on news or near-news. Staying under the radar is getting to be more difficult, sometimes a symptom of being not important enough to be worth reporting.
A psychological phenomenon related to selective perception is the “spotlight illusion” where someone imagines that people are looking at her all the time, as being in the spotlight and center of attention. Do they notice a missing button in her blouse or her new neck tattoo? In truth, people are seldom under constant scrutiny. Others will not remember what dress one wore in a party. (Can I wear the same dress I wore last year at another wedding? Yes, Dear.)
The challenge for the image consultant is how to restrain a client from overreacting to a story which only she and some little-read columnist (most will not accept such a characterization of their output) are aware of. Reacting too vehemently and publicly to a slur, whether imagined or real, magnifies the comment beyond its already routine reception.
Even the non-clipper is not spared the effects of selective perception. An obscure story will have been read by another and passed on to her to check on. (Did you see that item on you in a near-fistfight that appeared last Thursday?) The informer embellishes the tale and challenges the clueless subject to give a public response on a news item she already missed.
Worse is reacting violently to a blind item that happens to refer to somebody else — My dear, it’s about somebody more famous than you.
Selective perception makes the ordinary person lose a sense of proportion. With political figures reaction can take the form of retribution…or at least a few choice invectives in public.
Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.