THE RISE OF LIMITED-EFFECTS THEORY

THE RISE OF LIMITED-EFFECTS THEORY

Two wars—one imaginary, one real—helped move mass communication theory away from notions of powerful and subversive mass media to a more moderate and benign view.

The War of the Worlds researchers, led by Hadley Cantril, were part of a vanguard of social scientists who transformed our view of how media influence society. Within twenty years of Welles’s broadcast, the way many scholars looked at mass media had been radically altered. They no longer feared media as potential instruments of political oppression and manipulation, but instead portrayed mass communication as a relatively benign force with much potential for social good. Researchers gradually came to see media’s power over the public as limited—so limited that no government regulations were deemed necessary to prevent manipulation.

limited-effects perspective The guiding idea that media have minimal or limited effects

THE DEVELOPMENT OF LIMITED-EFFECTS THEORY

The people who developed limited-effects theory during the 1940s and 1950s were primarily methodologists—not theorists. Both Hovland and Lazarsfeld were convinced that we could best assess the influence of media by employing objective empirical methods to measure it. They argued that new research methods such as experiments and surveys made it possible to directly observe and draw objective conclusions about the effects of media. These conclusions would guide the construction of more useful theory that was grounded in systematic observation, not wild speculation.

As the new social scientists conducted their research, they found that media were not as powerful as mass society or propaganda theory had suggested. Media influence over public opinion or attitudes often proved hard to locate. Media influence was typically less important than that of factors such as social status or education. Those media effects that were found seemed to be isolated and were sometimes contradictory.

The factors that combined to make development of the perspective possible. We list these factors here, and we will refer to them in later sections.

1.The refinement and broad acceptance of empirical social research methods was an essential factor in the emergence of the limited-effects perspective. Throughout this period, empirical research methods were effectively promoted as an ideal means of measuring, describing, and ultimately explaining social phenomena. A generation of empirical social scientists working in several academic disciplines declared them to be the only “scientific” way of dealing with social phenomena. They dismissed other approaches as overly speculative, unsystematic, or too subjective . Because so few people at the time understood the limitations of empirical research methods, they often uncritically accepted the findings and conclusions derived from them. When these outcomes conflicted with past theories, the older theories were questioned and rejected, often on the basis of a handful of inconclusive findings.

  1. Empirical social researchers successfully branded people who advocated mass society and propaganda notions as “unscientific.” They accused mass society theory advocates of being fuzzy-minded humanists, doomsayers, political ideologues, or biased against media. Also, mass society and propaganda notions lost some of their broad appeal as the threat of propaganda seemed to fade in the late 1950s and 1960s. Within social science departments, study of propaganda was abandoned in favor of public opinion research.
  2. Social researchers exploited the commercial potential of the new research methods and gained the support of private industry. One of the first articles Lazarsfeld wrote after arriving in the United States was about the use of survey research methods as a tool for advertisers (Kornhauser and Lazarsfeld, 1935). Researchers promoted surveys and experiments as a means of probing media audiences and interpreting consumer attitudes and behaviors. Most of Hovland’s persuasion studies had more or less direct application to advertising and marketing. Lazarsfeld coined the term administrative research to refer to these applications. He persuasively argued for the use of empirical research to guide administrative decision making.
  3. The development of empirical social research was strongly backed by various private and government foundations, most notably the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Science Foundation. This support was crucial, particularly in the early stages, because large-scale empirical research required much more funding than previous forms of social research had required. Without support from the Rockefeller Foundation, Lazarsfeld might never have come to the United States or have been able to develop and demonstrate the validity of his approach. Without the government funding provided during the Cold War, large mass communication research centers might never have been established at major universities. The generation of empirical researchers trained in these centers might never have come to dominate the field during the 1970s and 1980s.
  4. As empirical research demonstrated its usefulness, media companies began to sponsor and eventually conduct their own empirical research on media. In time, both CBS and NBC formed their own social research departments and employed many outside researchers as consultants. Two of the most influential early media researchers were Frank Stanton and Joseph Klapper—the former collaborated with Lazarsfeld on numerous research projects in the 1940s, and the latter was Lazarsfeld’s student. Both Stanton and Klapper rose to become executives at CBS. As media corporations grew larger and earned sizable profits, they could afford to fund empirical research—especially when that research helped to justify the status quo and block moves to regulate their operations. Media funding and support were vital to the development of commercial audience ratings services such as Nielsen and Arbitron. These companies pioneered the use of survey research methods to measure the size of audiences and guide administrative decision making in areas such as advertising and marketing. Media support was also crucial to the growth of various national polling services, such as Gallup, Harris, and Roper. Media coverage of polls and ratings data helped establish their credibility in the face of widespread commonsense criticism. During the 1940s and 1950s, most people were skeptical about the usefulness of data gathered from small samples. They wondered, for example, how pollsters could survey just 300 or 1200 people and draw conclusions about an entire city or nation. To answer these questions, media reported that opinion polls and ratings were valid because they were based on “scientific” samples. Often, there was little explanation of what the term scientific meant in this context.
  5. Empirical social researchers successfully established their approach within the various social research disciplines—political science, history, social psychology, sociology, and economics. These disciplines, in turn, shaped the development of communication research. During the 1960s and 1970s, several communication areas—for example, advertising and journalism—rapidly.

THE TWO-STEP FLOW OF INFORMATION AND INFLUENCE

Two-step flow theory The idea that messages pass from the media, through opinion leaders, to opinion followers

inductive An approach to theory construction that sees research beginning with empirical observation rather than speculation

middle-range theory A theory composed of empirical generalizations based on empirical fact

Strengths Weaknesses
1. Focuses attention on the environment in which effects can and can’t occur

2. Stresses importance of opinion leaders in formation of public opinion

3. Is based on inductive rather than deductive reasoning

4. Effectively challenges simplistic notions of direct effects

1. Is limited to its time (1940s) and media environment (no television)

2. Uses reported behavior (voting) as only test of media effects

3. Downplays reinforcement as an important media effect

4. Uses survey methods that underestimate media impact

5. Later research demonstrates a multistep flow of influence

 

Gatekeepers In two-step flow, people who screen media messages and pass on those messages and help others share their views

Opinion leaders In two-step flow, those who pass on information to opinion followers

opinion followers In two-step flow, those who receive information from opinion leaders

LIMITED-EFFECTS THEORY

  1. Media rarely influence individuals directly.
  2. There is a two-step flow of media influence.
  3. By the time most people become adults, they have developed strongly held group commitments such as political party and religious affiliations. These affiliations provide an effective barrier against media influence. Media use tends to be consistent with these commitments.
  4. When media effects do occur, they are modest and isolated.

Indirect-effects theory When media do seem to have an effect, that effect is “filtered” through other parts of the society, for example, through friends or social groups

Limited-effects theory The theory that media have minimal or limited effects because those effects are mitigated by a variety of mediating or intervening variables

FROM PROPAGANDA RESEARCH TO ATTITUDE-CHANGE THEORIES

The war provided three important motivations for people interested in what would come to be known as attitude-change research.

  • First, the success of the Nazi propaganda efforts in Europe challenged the democratic and very American notion of the people’s wisdom. It seemed quite likely that powerful bad ideas could overwhelm inadequately defended good ideas. Strategies were needed to counter Nazi propaganda and defend American values.
  • A second war-provided research motivation was actually more imperative. Large numbers of men and women from all parts of the country and from all sorts of backgrounds had been rapidly recruited, trained, and tossed together in the armed forces.
  • The third motivation was simple convenience: Whereas the military saw soldiers in training, psychologists saw research subjects—well-tracked research subjects. The availability of many people about whom large amounts of background information had already been collected proved significant because it helped define the research direction of what we now call attitude-change theory.

MASS COMMUNICATION RESEARCH AND THE FOCUS ON MEDIA EFFECTS

The study of media effects was obviously a worthwhile focus for research, but should it have been the dominant focus? In their pursuit of insights into media effects processes, researchers were turning their attention away from larger questions about the role of media in society.

(1) The influence of mass media is rarely direct, because it is almost always mediated by individual differences;

(2) The influence of mass media is rarely direct, because it is almost always mediated by group membership or relationships.

Individual differences Individuals’ different psychological make-ups that cause media influence to vary from person to person

Social categories The idea that members of given groups or aggregates will respond to media stimuli in more or less uniform ways

Cognitive consistency The idea that people consciously and unconsciously work to preserve their existing views

Cognitive dissonance Information that is inconsistent with a person’s already-held attitudes creates psychological discomfort, or dissonance

Selective processes Exposure (attention), retention, and perception; psychological processes designed to reduce dissonance

Attitude-Change Theory

Strengths Weaknesses
1. Pays deep attention to process in which messages can and can’t have effects

2. Provides insight into influence of individual differences and group affiliations in shaping media influence

3. Attention to selective processes helps clarify how individuals process information

1. Experimental manipulation of variables overestimates their power and underestimates media’s

2. Focuses on information in media messages, not on more contemporary symbolic media

3. Uses attitude change as only measure of effects, ignoring reinforcement and more subtle forms of media influence

Information-flow theory Theory of how information moves from media to audiences to have specific intended effects (now known as information or innovation diffusion theory)

Source-dominated theory Theory that examines the communication process from the point of view of some elite message source

Phenomenistic theory Theory that media are rarely the sole cause of effects and are relatively powerless when compared with other social factors

Reinforcement theory More common name for phenomenistic theory, stressing the theory’s view that media’s most common effect is reinforcement

Elite pluralism Theory viewing society as composed of interlocking pluralistic groups led by opinion leaders who rely on media for information about politics and the social world

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