The Messenger Matters: Tweaking Design to Minimize Byline Bias

By Walter Frick

Without any change to the authors or their content, bios can be constructed in a way that maximizes credibility by tapping into the social graph


When the New York Times launched its Sunday Review section last month -- a redesign of the Week In Review -- it made a small but significant change in layout: opinion pieces now feature contributor bios before rather than after the columns themselves. This may seem insignificant, but research indicates that the introduction of an author's background can significantly alter readers' perception of the content at hand. For that reason, the presentation of author bios offers media outlets a chance to draw readers in, to establish trust, and even to help keep their minds open to arguments they might otherwise dismiss.

A 2007 experiment conducted by researchers as part of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School demonstrates the extent to which a commentator's background can influence readers' perceptions. The researchers created four "policy experts" with mock resumes designed to fit different cultural worldviews. They then presented research subjects with arguments about the risks and benefits of HPV vaccination -- with positions for and against randomly assigned to pairs of the imaginary experts -- and asked subjects what they thought of the vaccine. The researchers "found that policy advocates' perceived cultural worldviews can indeed significantly accentuate or mute cultural polarization" as measured by subjects' responses to the proposed policy.

When the experts were assigned "expected" positions -- an egalitarian or communitarian defending mandatory vaccination for instance -- polarization between the research subjects increased, as subjects' own cultural leanings on the issue were confirmed by the expert who appeared to share their values. This result is consistent with the theory of motivated reasoning, which predicts that individuals will be more likely to accept evidence that fits within their existing worldviews, and to dismiss evidence that challenges it. But the 2007 study adds another layer by suggesting that "cultural credibility", as the researchers call it, might amplify or mute that tendency.

A further finding of the study holds great potential for improving our political discourse. The researchers presented some subjects with opposing sides of the argument, both authored by experts whose backgrounds fit the subjects' values. With even one expert with whom they shared values "vouching" for an unexpected position, polarization of opinion among the subjects decreased. As the researchers explain it:

When individuals see that even some persons who hold their values are willing to take such a position -- to "vouch" for that position as acceptable for someone with their values to hold -- they are less likely to form the subconscious impression that taking such a view will estrange them from their peers. In that state, they are more likely to consider the merits of an argument that runs contrary to their cultural predispositions.

This finding has important implications for the use of author bios in media. As I wrote in a previous story, media outlets have an opportunity to design media that accounts for users' biases. Author bios present such a chance. Without any change to the authors or their content, bios could be constructed in a way that maximizes cultural credibility by tapping into the social graph. Google has illustrated how authors can be linked to their social profiles with a recently launched feature highlighting authors and their Google+ profiles in search returns. With access to users' social profiles, media outlets could take this a step further by customizing author bios for each user in order to highlight similarities. Perhaps an author whose professional affiliations might seem culturally foreign would appear more "culturally credible" if you knew that you both hail from the same county, root for the same baseball team, or share an interest in fly fishing.

The research I've described focused merely on political polarization, but its findings are relevant to anyone interested in encouraging open-mindedness and decreasing bias and motivated reasoning. Customizing author bios based on cultural affinity might give users cognitive cover to consider arguments they would otherwise have been dismissed. Of course, it might do nothing, or have any number of unintended consequences. But experimentation by media is surely warranted and could collect more valuable data in this area. There is no reason why media design can't help us think better, and experimenting with "cultural credibility" is a perfect place to start. As media outlets seek to foster both civil and rational political discourse online they should remember that the messenger matters.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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