Chapter 10: Religious Television and Attitude Change

Religious Television: The American Experience
by Peter Horsfield

Chapter 10: Religious Television and Attitude Change

The main reason why most religious broadcasters begin broadcasting is they see it as an effective means to influence people toward their particular religious stance and outlook. Though criticisms occasionally have been made suggesting that the paid-time religious broadcasters are concerned primarily with raising money, there can, perhaps, belittle doubt that the essential reason why religious broadcasters are in the business is for the purpose of changing people’s attitudes toward religious faith.

The question which has been asked from the beginning of television, however, is how effective are the religious broadcasters and television itself in achieving this purpose? It is apparent from the increase in the number of religious programs and the growth of the paid-time religious organizations that television is able to achieve some effects. Such effects, however, could result mostly from people whose attitude toward religion is already favorable. What is not as clear is the extent to which religious programs on television are able to change people’s attitudes toward religious faith. This chapter will examine the empirical evidence available in relation to this question.

Because there have been only limited studies specifically related to the effects of religious television, in order to answer the question thoroughly the researcher in religious television is forced to extrapolate from empirical studies in related mass-communication areas. The problem with this, however, is that the study of mass communication has passed through several stages and allows for several very different approaches. Initial approaches to the study of mass communication effect, for example, attributed strong powers to the mass media to bring about change in viewers’ attitudes and behavior. Referred to as the “hypodermic” approach, it suggested that broadcasters were able to inject their messages unhindered into the minds of the listeners, achieving whatever effect they desired. The social psychologist Dorwin

Cartwright in 1949 expressed this attitude in his comment: “It is conceivable that one persuasive person could, through the use of mass media bend the world’s population to his will.”(1) We have noted also that some religious broadcasters still reflect this understanding, thinking that once they are able to attract an audience to their program changing that audience to their point of view is simply a matter of technique.

In the 1940s and 1950s, however, several studies began to demonstrate a more complex picture of the flow and effect of mass communication. From this matrix, subsequent research slowly began to identify a range of different variables that intervened between the message communicated and the effect produced on the person receiving the message.

The situation today is a complex one. Several major research directions have emerged involving not only personal but also social and cultural dimensions in the mass-media process, so that it is difficult to integrate these into a single theory of mass-media effect which has not only explanatory but also predictive ability. In order to cope with this diversity in the evaluation of religious television, it is necessary to break down the subject into several specific issues (covered in this chapter and the following two chapters). In this chapter, the major focus will be personal effects of religious television, understood primarily in terms of change in personal attitudes and behavior. Subsequent chapters will focus on two other major areas of religious television effect: the effects of religious television in relation to the local church and in relation to the broader cultural environment.

One of the most useful models for evaluating the personal effects of religious television programs is found in Television and Human Behavior by George Comstock and his associates. The authors looked at more than 2,500 books, articles, reports, and other documents in an attempt to derive an empirically based and comprehensive statement of the effects of television on human behavior. Included in this broad analysis is a psychological model for understanding the effects which television may have on individual attitudes and behavior. It is the opinion of this author that this model is of significant value for the religious communicator because of its empirical basis, its comprehensiveness, its clarity, and its applicability in understanding the religious television situation.

The authors of Television and Human Behavior recognize that such a model must be seen as a hypothetical postulation of the actual process of television effect. Nevertheless, it has the value of providing a sound structure by which present research may be integratively understood and future research stimulated and organized. With the advantage of this overarching theoretical framework, otherwise insignificant pieces of research on aspects of religious television may be of great value in illuminating aspects of the model as it applies to religious television. It is intended in this chapter to examine relevant aspects of the model, and how research in the area of religious television relates to it.

A Psychological Model of Television Effect

The central thesis of the model is described by the authors in the following way:

The likelihood of a given person’s behaving in conformance with a given “act” is a function of three factors: “salience,” the degree to which the particular behavior exists psychologically for the person; “repertoire,” the summed salience of all possible acts for the person in his present situation (any single act is a fraction of repertoire); “arousal,” which is the extent to which the person is activated to perform any act in his present situation.(2)

The authors present this thesis as a mathematical equation in the following form: salience act = salience divided by repertoire X arousal

The implications of expressing the thesis as such an equation are (1) if the viewed action is not at all salient for the person (i.e., = 0) the action will not affect the viewer’s behavior (“act”); (2) the chance that a particular viewed action will affect a person’s behavior will decrease to the extent that they have other alternatives in their “repertoire”; and (3) if the individual is not aroused to act he will not exhibit the viewed behavior, no matter how salient it is. If it is the only act in the person’s repertoire then it is maximally likely to be exhibited, limited only by the degree of arousal. Television is able to affect an individual’s behavior by effecting change in each of these three factors.

1. Changes in Salience of an Act

Television is able to affect the salience of an act by: (1) demonstrating the act to be performed and (2) attaching negative or positive values to the act through perceived consequences and perceived reality of the act. The salience of a particular viewed action is also postulated as an equation:

salience = past consequences + (perceived consequences X perceived reality)

The implications of this equation are (1) if the degree of perceived reality is zero, the increment in salience of a viewed action will also be zero; (2) if no evaluative consequences are associated with the viewed action, salience will not result regardless of the extent to which the portrayal is seen as realistic.

The salience of a particular viewed action for the viewer is dependent to a large extent on the perceived consequences of performing the act. These consequences are seen as a function of several factors.

(1) Anticipated reward and punishment. A viewed behavior will be encouraged to the extent that a reward is attached to it, and dis-inhibited to the extent that punishment is attached to it. The research suggests that reinforcement factors are applicable to a wide range of behaviors, though reinforcement appears to apply specifically to the performance of a behavior and not to its cognitive acquisition.

(2) Justification. Justification appears to operate primarily as a dis-inhibiting factor, countervailing against negative perceived consequences more than providing a positive stimulus. The research indicates that justification interacts with the motive state of the individual viewer. The more closely the rationale for justifying the model’s otherwise negative behavior coincides with the immediate arousal of the viewer, the stronger is the dis-inhibiting effect.

The salience of viewed behaviors for the viewer is dependent also on the perceived reality of the behaviors. The reality of a perceived act on television derives mainly from the viewer’s perspective, with a good deal of variation in the degree to which different viewers perceive a portrayal as realistic. To a large extent, the cue properties of a situation within which the viewer finds himself or herself after observing a television portrayal govern the influence of that portrayal. The salience of a particular perceived behavior for a viewer is also dependent on the patterns of reinforcement that the viewer has experienced for similar behaviors in the past.

2. Changes in the Viewer’s Repertoire

Television portrayals are able to affect a person’s repertoire of available appropriate behaviors in two basic ways: (1) by changing the salience of particular acts within the repertoire, and (2) by the addition of new, salient alternatives.

The probability of a person’s performing a viewed action is decreased to the extent that he or she has other possible acts in his or her repertoire. A television portrayal, however, may change the salience of a particular action by demonstrating its effectiveness or ineffectiveness in a specific situation. The extent to which television is able to add new, salient alternatives to the person’s repertoire is dependent on gaining the person’s attention, achieving retention of the behavior, and the person’s ability and motivation to perform the act. When a behavior that has been observed fails to be imitated immediately, however, it cannot be necessarily inferred that it was not learned in the limited sense represented by the observed behavior. If incentives and opportunity later occur, the behavior may be displayed.

3. Changes in the Arousal Level of the Viewer

Arousal is proposed as a necessary condition for the expression of overt behavior. If a viewer is not at all aroused to act, that viewer will not exhibit the viewed behavior, no matter how salient it may be. Arousal is highly situational, with the level fluctuating markedly. It is intuitively obvious that a person can be aroused by many situational factors in daily life, and there is evidence to suggest that both the content and form of televised portrayals can be arousing.

Arousal by television itself is not necessary for television to have an influence on behavior. When arousal is sufficiently heightened by sources other than television to activate the factors encompassed by the proposed model, the television-related influences can play an important role.

A further significant element within the model is that of opportunity. Social learning will be most likely when television portrays acts which the person has many opportunities to perform. But opportunity is not just a situational contingency pertinent to only one act. Rather, behaviors for which there is more frequent opportunity will be displayed more often and this will in turn reinforce these acts at the expense of others. Some increase in salience is added each time a behavior is displayed; therefore, television and environmental events tend to be mutually reinforcing. One should not expect mass-media portrayals to stimulate or disinhibit behaviors for which opportunity is rare and not contiguous to the viewing situation.

Therefore, if the value of “act” is greater than zero as a consequence of the equation,

salience divided by repertoire X arousal

we could expect the viewed behavior to occur if “opportunity” is present. If not, we could expect the person to seek “alternatives” to the extent that he or she remains aroused. If such behavior is exhibited it may be reinforced depending on the real consequences, thus increasing the salience of that behavior. Such behavior also reduces arousal, bringing the person back to the starting point of the model.

When applied to religious television, we might predict that religious television programs will have their greatest effect on a viewer when the viewer is aroused because of a particular need; when the recommended action on the religious program becomes salient to the person because of a lack of other options within their repertoire; when the action is perceived as being a realistic and rewarding solution to the need; when the viewer has experienced favorable consequences as a result of the action in the past; and when the program presents options for action that the viewer has opportunity to perform.

These optimal conditions for effect are not always present, of course. The research suggests in fact that they are rarely present. Most effects of religious television programs are strongly modified by variations in most elements of the model, making it extremely difficult to predict with any certainty what the particular effect of any program will be. There are, however, several studies which illuminate aspects of the model as it applies to religious television programs.

Several studies indicate that religious television programs can be effective in stimulating people to consider religion as a subject and to modify their attitude toward it. The Mennonite Church in 1970 produced and aired nationally a series of television spots oriented toward the family. A subsequent national survey indicated that 4 percent of the people who recalled having seen the spots said they had been stimulated to talk with someone else about the subject.(3) Donigan, in a study of broadcasting by the Mormon Church, found that the broadcast programs were effective in creating favor- able impressions of the church among nonmembers and the broadcasts were one of the factors influential in the respondents’ desire to know more about the Mormon Church.(4) The Gallup Poll in the “Unchurched American” found that religious programs may also be effective in stimulating thought among viewers who do not have an active connection with a church. The poll found that 14 percent of those unchurched who had listened to or watched a religious radio or television program in the past 30 days had considered becoming active in a church again as a result of it. Of itself, of course, this finding says little: it gives no indication of the extent to which these people were actually aroused to this course of action. On the other hand, it ties in with another finding of the same study: that 52 percent of the unchurched could see a situation where they could become a fairly active member of a church and would be open to an invitation from a church community.(5)

Two experimental studies conducted on religious television programs support the thesis that viewing these programs can change attitudes toward religion. Rockenstein in 1966 and Klos in 1978 studied the effects of selected Christian children’s programs on informational and attitudinal tests administered to selected groups of children in controlled laboratory situations before and after viewing. They found that the religious programs were effective in teaching the children facts and attitudes about the subject matter of the programs.(6)

The general body of research indicates, therefore, that religious television programs do have the potential to change people’s attitudes toward religious faith in general and toward specific aspects of religious faith and practice in particular. To the extent that religious television programs are able to do this, religious television could play a valuable complementary role to the functioning of the local church by laying a groundwork in the cultivating of favorable attitudes toward religious faith. This function is frequently described as a “pre-evangelistic” function.

The model presented by Comstock and his associates highlights the multitude of variables that tend to quality this effectiveness: salience of the acts presented, the viewer’s repertoire, the viewer’s state of arousal at the time, the past and perceived future consequences of the behavior, the perceived reality of the behavior, and the opportunities present for its performance. It is obvious that more extensive research is needed to clarify the nature and conditions necessary for such effectiveness to take place.

Other research directions illuminate further characteristics in the understanding of religious television effect. The nature of the effect gained will vary according to the centrality and function of the attitude within the human psyche. Katz has identified four major functions served by attitudes within the human personality: (1) the utilitarian function, by which certain attitudes enable maximization of rewards and avoidance of pain in adjusting to one’s environment; (2) the ego-defensive function, by which specific attitudes protect the ego; (3) the value-expressive function, by which particular attitudes provide satisfaction from personal values and self-concept; and (4) the knowledge function, by which certain attitudes satisfy the need to structure and understand one’s universe. Attitudes that exist on the periphery of one’s psyche, such as those related to the knowledge or utilitarian functions will be more susceptible to modification than will those that are central to identity formation and continuity.(7)

Mechanisms of defense, such as selectivity of exposure, distortion of perception, and group pressure act continually, and frequently subconsciously, to protect the individual against messages that challenge fixed and functional ideas, attitudes, and behaviors. These mechanisms tend to direct people not only to seek and choose communications that are favorable to their own predispositions, but also to misperceive and misinterpret other persuasive communications in accordance with those established pre-dispositions. (8)

These mechanisms are especially pertinent to religious broadcasting, which is concerned not only with adjustments in people’s knowledge and operation of life situations, but also in change within central life commitments and values. The operation of these defense mechanisms is seen in the structure of the religious television audience: most viewers of religious programs on television are those who are already in strong agreement with message of the program. The more specified the message, the more specified also becomes the audience for that program.

The effect of these mechanisms was also apparent in the laboratory studies of Rockenstein and Klos. Rockenstein found that there were significant differences in information acquisition and attitude change between churched children and non-churched children: churched children gained more of the information and accepted more of the attitudes communicated by the televised programs than did the non-churched children. Similarly, he found that Protestant Ecumenical children — those whose religious tradition was similar to that of the program — gained more information and accepted more of the attitudes communicated by the program than did Catholic children and Protestant Evangelical children.

Though the pre-evangelistic opportunities offered by television may be a valid justification for the religious use of television, the qualifications on the effectiveness of this use should be noted: religious television programs will be most effective in those situations where no strong attitudes or behavior patterns exist on the point in question, where the change is an extension or redirection of an old strong attitude, or if the attitude being proposed is perceived by the receiver as being salient to a specific unsatisfied need-state existing at the time.

However, even where genuine attitude change or behavior change may take place under the impact of a televised religious message, the longitudinal durability of such changes are uncertain. Research indicates that when opinions, attitudes, or behavior do shift under the impact of communications, they tend to regress to the preexisting position unless they are reinforced by events, other communications, or group pressures. Hence Comstock et al. suggest that those attitudes and behaviors for which there is more frequent opportunity for expression within the immediate environment will tend to be displayed more often and in turn reinforced at the expense of others. Mass media, therefore, should not be expected to stimulate or dis-inhibit attitudes or behaviors for which opportunity is rare. (9)

For these reasons, as Schramm notes, in major decisions which involve significant and central attitude change, the channels of interpersonal communication and influence are far more effective than mass media because of the opportunities they present for reinforcement of response and ongoing group support. However, failure to reinforce an acquired attitude may give it an unfavorable reinforcement record and result in its being rejected on future occasions as a viable response alternative.(10)

The necessity of proximate opportunity for behavior expression will be seen to be a major issue in considering the contribution religious television programs are able to make to the growth of the membership of local churches. Viewers are more likely to express influences of religious programs in actions which are proximate to the television screen, such as contacting or subscribing to a religious broadcast organization rather than through the more distant option of initiating a relationship with a neighborhood church. Realization of the importance of reinforcing appropriate supportive behavior by viewers has also led the broadcasters to encourage formation of an interactive relationship between viewers and themselves rather than attempting to direct them to a local church.

In summary, therefore, the research indicates that religious television programs could be effective in influencing viewers’ attitudes and opinions on certain subjects and in producing certain types of behavioral response. Because of the strong dynamic of defense mechanisms, the major effect of religious television programs will be one of reinforcement of existing attitudes that most viewers would hold in harmony with the broadcaster. The persuasiveness of religious programs toward change appear to be greatest when they are viewed by a person who is in a state of attitude imbalance or transition and seeking new forms of gratification for his or her needs; when they are viewed by a person for whom religious faith has always been a viable, if not vital, option; when the options being presented are seen as realistic and leading to a desirable end; when opportunity for demonstration exists in proximate distance to the viewing situation; and when the attitude or behavior is not central to the individual’s self-concept and ego-functioning.

The presence of religious programs on television does serve the function of maintaining religious faith as an option to be considered in the search for salient sources of need-gratification. The religious perspective presented on television may also serve to create an imbalance in an otherwise balanced need-state in the direction of development of religious faith. However, for significant and permanent changes in attitudes and behavior toward religious faith, religious programs need to be complemented by interpersonal contact and continuing group support. It will be noted later in this chapter that the failure of broadcasters in this regard may have significantly reduced the effectiveness of their contribution to the mission of the church.

Can Religious Programs on Television Convert People to Religious Faith?

We noted initially, in looking at the empirical evidence for this question, that the theological concept of conversion as held by Protestants is different from what is usually meant by the term in empirical analysis. In theological terms conversion is used to describe the moment when a person for the first time comes to a personal realization of the grace and forgiveness of God and accepts that theological reality as relevant for his or her life. Within Protestant theology it is this moment when one is acknowledged as becoming a Christian. Acceptance of this reality may or may not result in any immediately observable change in overt behavior, though over a period of time it is expected that the person would demonstrate increased qualities of love and acceptance to others, patience, and self-control. As with many theological affirmations, there is no empirical way of testing the existence or reality of such conversion. Compare this concept to the more general use of the term conversion, which is applied to a situation where a person demonstrates marked change in behavior, often resulting in a stance which is diametrically opposed to a previous stance.

While it is not possible empirically to verify the validity of a theological reality, it is possible empirically to clarify several things related to religious television’s claim of success in converting people. One is the assessment of their claims made of situations of radical change in behavior

i.e., where the theological reality is accompanied by significant change in attitude and behavior. Another is an evaluation of the extent to which the broadcasters’ claims of influence on people’s lives are supported by people’s own perception.

While the dominant function of television has been noted as the reinforcement of existing attitudes, there is some evidence to suggest that radical change in attitudes and values may occur in response to a mass-communicated message. Though defense mechanisms act to protect functional attitudes against threat and change, these defense mechanisms are not absolute. Berelson and Steiner note that “even in extreme cases, there is usually a sizable minority of people who read or listen to material against or indifferent to their prior position — out of curiosity, accident (i.e., no foreknowledge of what the content will be), lack of predispositional strength or, importantly, simple accessibility of materials.”(11) Accidental exposure is especially effective in bypassing defense mechanisms because the mechanisms have not had the chance to be aroused. This could be particularly pertinent to American television where a large amount of viewing is non-purposive. It could also be relevant to the use of religious spots, which are often interspersed within general programming and are free of the trap- pings and identification that accompany longer religious programs.

Radical change of attitude may also take place when existing attitudes are no longer adequate to satisfy the related need-state of the viewer. As needs change because of changes in socio-physical or biophysical conditions, former patterns of attitudes or behaviors may no longer be perceived as satisfying. This condition prompts an active or passive search to match newly salient needs with available sources of gratification. (12) In this situation, a mass communication might engender redefinition of attitudes or personal images in several possible ways: through addition, clarification, or even radical reorganization.(13) Such redefinition can also occur at many different levels of personality structure or attitude centrality. Religion on television may be particularly effective in stimulating attitude change because of the “personal” attributes of much of religious programming and also the immediacy of religious television’s presence in the home, a place where defense mechanisms are usually less active.

There is research which questions the number of “conversions” claimed by the paid-time religious broadcasters. James Engel of Wheaton Graduate School of Communication surveyed a sample of viewers of the religious station WCFC-Channel 38 in Chicago who had called the station in response to the invitation given on the station to “accept Christ,” a term used in evangelical circles as equivalent to religious conversion. Though the survey sampled only those who had called the station within the past two and a half years to accept Christ, 29.92 percent of the respondents said that they had been Christians for longer than three years. Further, he found that only 19.69 percent of the respondents associated their decision to accept Christ with either watching television or praying with a television counselor. The remaining 60.65 percent who said they had had a religious conversion experience identified this experience with a church, a friend, or other situation. The call to the station appears to have been an expression of this earlier decision or a confirmation of it. While such a study does not attempt to evaluate the significance of the experience on the persons involved, it does call into question the accuracy of the broadcasters’ claims of effectiveness in evangelism. In terms of observable behavior, the study reveals that for most of those involved the call to the station was not a radical change in behavior, but rather an extension of already well-established behavior patterns. More than half the respondents indicated that they attended church at least once a week (almost half that number attended twice a week) before the call and another 13.39 percent said they attended monthly or several times a year. A large majority of the caller — 63.78 percent — had called the station before.(14)

While it is possible for television to trigger a radical change in behavior in certain persons under certain conditions, most paid-time broadcasters present this dramatic effect as the norm for their programs. The research indicates, however, that the figures given particularly by the paid-time religious broadcasters in support of this claim are sweeping overstatements; they do not attempt accurately to assess the situation of the person involved in the decision making before claiming them as a conversion statistic, nor do they take into account the durability of the change which, it is claimed, is produced. Under certain conditions a dramatic change may occur within a person’s attitudes and behavior; however, research on persuasion and attitude change indicates that these changes will not endure unless they are reinforced by rewarding experiences, other communications, or group pressure.(15) Within Protestant thought one of the extablished criteria for genuine conversion is subsequent moral behavioral change and continued Christian group involvement. As will be noted in the following chapter, the record of religious television in this regard is quite dismal. There are very few people who may experience some form of religious conversion by television alone who continue in that change through extended involvement within an interactive Christian group.



1. Dorwin Cartwright, “Some Principles of Mass Persuasion: Selected Findings of Research on the Sale of U.S. War Bonds,” Human Relations 2, July 1949, pp. 253-67. 2. The model is presented in Comstock, Television and Human Behavior, chapter 8. 3. Mennonite Advertising Agency, “Report of Family Life Television Spots — Series II, 1970,” Harrisonburg, 1970. 4. Robert W. Sonigan, “A Descriptive Analysis of the Effectiveness of Broadcasting by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the Northern States Mission Area,” M. A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1964. 5. Gallup, “Unchurched American,” pp. 57-58. This 14 percent represents 3.93 percent of the total unchurched population. 6. W. H. Rockenstein, “Children and Religious Television: An Experimental Study of the Reactions of Children in the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Grades in Monogalia County, West Virginia to Children’s Religious Television Programming,” Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University, 1966, pp. 161-75; Frank Klos, “A Study of the Origin, Utilization, and Impact of the ‘Davey and Goliath’ Series 1959-77 and Its Present Effectiveness in Teaching Religious Values to Children,” Ed.D. dissertation, Temple University, 1979, pp. 177-82. 7. Daniel Katz, “The Functional Approach to the Study of Attitudes,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 24, 1960, pp. 163-204. 8. Bernard Berelson and Gary A. Steiner, of Human Behavior: An Inventory of ScientificFindings, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964, pp. 529-30, 536. 9. Comstock, Television and Human Behavior, pp. 447-48. 10. Wilbur Schramm, Mass Media and National Development, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964, pp. 132-39.

11. Berelson, Human Behavior, p. 531. 12. John W. Dimmick et al., “Media Use and the Life Span,” American Behavioral Scientist, September/October 1979, p. 10. 13. Wilbur Schramm and Donald F. Roberts, eds.. The Process and Effects of Mass Communication, revised edition, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971, p. 364. 14. Engel, “Pilot Research Study,” pp. 26-32. 15. Berelson, Human Behavior, p. 543,