I still remember a political cartoon (although, unfortunately, not the cartoonist) from the Vietnam War/Watergate era. Set in a living room, it showed a TV screen with a newscaster saying, “And now for the nightly news.” Shrinking away from the screen, looking terrified, was an American family.
I’ve often thought of that cartoon when the news seems relentlessly horrible. And, today, of course, thanks to cable news, the Internet, smartphones and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s more difficult than ever to avoid feeling overwhelmed with negative news — and quaking in response to it.
The cartoon also came to mind as I read through a study published last week in the journal PLoS One. The study made the interesting (but not definitive — I’ll get to that in a minute) finding that reading negative news articles takes a bigger emotional toll on women than on men. It also found that women are more likely to remember negative news than men.
Surprisingly, this is one of only a handful of studies that have examined the role of mass media as a stressor on healthy individuals. And it’s apparently only the second such study to use physiological rather than psychological measurements to evaluate that stress.
For the study, a team of researchers from Montreal’s Centre for Studies on Human Stress recruited 60 French-Canadians, aged 18 to 35. They were evenly divided by gender, and none had any psychological or physical illnesses.
For the experiment, the participants were brought into a laboratory, where they were asked to read a series of recent newspaper articles (headlines and first few lines) on a screen. They were randomly assigned to two groups. Half read articles in which the news was considered “neutral” (such as the opening of a new film); the other half read articles in which the news was deemed “negative” (a recent murder or deadly accident).
After reading the articles, the participants were asked to perform two stress-inducing tasks: making an oral argument for why they should be hired for a job (to nonvisible judges behind a one-way mirror) and completing math problems under a time constraint. (Both are standardized stress tests.)
Saliva samples were collected at strategic times throughout the experiment. The samples were later tested for levels of the stress hormone cortisol. (Four of the study’s volunteers, two men and two women, were removed from the final analysis because their initial cortisol levels were extremely high.)
On the following day, the participants were called and asked about the news items they had read. They were not told that one of the purposes of the call was to test their memory.
Reading negative news did not cause either the men or the women in the study to experience any change in cortisol levels. However, during the two subsequent stress tests, those women who had read the negative news exhibited a significant increase in cortisol. The men — and the women who read the neutral news — showed no such increase.
Furthermore, during the next-day phone conversations, women who had read the negative news were significantly more likely to remember details about it than men who had read it.
“Based on these results,” write the study’s authors, “we suggest that exposition to negative news media on a regular basis can have its toll on the capacity of women to more strongly react to other environmental stressors of their daily life.”
The study’s authors offer two possible explanations for the gender difference in their findings.
Other research has suggested that women tend to ruminate more than men. Ruminating about the bad news they had just read may have led the women in the study to react more strongly to the stress imposed by the two tasks they were subsequently asked to perform.
Evolutionary biology may also offer an explanation. “It has been suggested that the women’s stress system is wired-up to ensure not only their own survival but the one of their offspring as well,” write the study’s authors. “This requires a certain degree of empathy, a characteristic that seems more pronounced in women than in men. Given that the majority of the news excerpts involve the capacity to detect threats that are directed to other people and not to the self, it is thus possible that the task had a stronger effect on the physiological stress system of women.”
That theory might also explain, they added, why the women remembered the details of the negative news better than the men.
Now for the caveats. This study was very small and involved a homogeneous group of people. The same results might not be found in a larger sample or among people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Also, the study examined only written news — although for a reason. TV news has sensory elements, the authors noted, that would have made interpreting the study’s findings more complicated. (Most Americans get their news from TV, although recent polls show that an increasing number of people are citing the Internet as their primary news source. The Internet includes, of course, both news videos and written articles.)
Still, this is an interesting finding — particularly as we find ourselves cringing ever more often from the TV (and computer) screen.
PLoS One is an open-access journal, so you can read the study in full at its website.