October 16th, 2012
By Alexandra Sifferlin
It’s hard to avoid the news, thanks to Twitter feeds, Facebook updates and the ubiquity of newsfeeds eager to flood your screen with both calamity and celebration. But how are all these current events affecting our psyche?
To figure out whether our increasing exposure to 24-hour news coverage — especially negative news — has an impact on our stress levels, researchers from University of Montreal recruited 60 men and women to read news stories and submit to certain stressful situations. Turns out, women are more sensitive to negative news stories than men are, and they remember the details of such events better.
(MORE: Background TV: Children Exposed to Four Hours a Day)
For the study, the researchers divided the participants, aged 18 to 35, into four groups to read news stories. One group of men and one group of women read “neutral” news stories, about park openings or movie premieres, for example, while the other groups read negative news stories — about murders and accidents. To determine the participants’ stress levels after reading these stories, the research team took saliva samples and analyzed each for the stress hormone cortisol. The higher the level of hormone, the more stressed the participants likely were.
The study participants then completed stress-inducing tasks involving memory and intellect, and then provided a second round of saliva samples. The following day, the participants discussed the news stories they read the day before with researchers over the phone. The scientists found that although women’s stress levels didn’t rise after reading the negative news stories, the stories did make them more reactive to the stressful situations they endured afterward: women’s cortisol levels were higher after the memory and intellect tasks if they had first read negative news stories than if they read the neutral ones. Researchers didn’t see the same effect in men. What’s more, women who read stories about accidents and murders remembered more about them than did women who read “neutral” news. Again, the same phenomenon wasn’t seen among the male participants.
“When our brain perceives a threatening situation, our bodies begin to produce stress hormones that enter the brain and may modulate memories of stressful or negative events,” Sonia Lupien, director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress, explained in a statement. “This led us to believe that reading a negative news story should provoke the reader’s stress reaction.”
(MORE: Human Kindness Gene Withstands Threats and Fear)
What might explain the gender difference? The researchers speculate that evolutionary factors could play a role. Women’s invested interest in the survival of their offspring may make them more sensitive to potentially threatening situations or events. “Women tend to be more empathic than men,” says lead author Marie-France Marin. “It could be that they carry the [emotional] load longer than men, which could also influence their memory.”
The authors argue that understanding and appreciating individual reactions to bad news is increasingly important in our plugged-in society. “We are consuming news more and more. With smartphones, you can always see what’s going on. Our brain is constantly detecting stressors, and more and more stress hormones get back to the brain, which can affect attention, mood and cognition,” says Marin.
For women, perhaps recognizing that they may be particularly vulnerable to news-related stress could help them lessen the burden by simply being mindful of the potential effect of mass media, or by engaging in coping mechanisms like meditation and exercise.
The study was published in the journal PLoS One.