Bad news delivered through the media increases women’s sensitivity to stressful situations, new research finds, but men are immune to such effects. Women also seem to more clearly recall details from those depressing news stories.
Lead author Marie-France Marin worries that the constant bombardment of media covering the latest horrific disease, end-of-the-world climate change predictions or school shooting may have negative consequences for more sensitive people’s health. “What if all that news was bad for us? It certainly looks like that could be the case,” she said in a statement.
To arrive at these conclusions, Marin and colleagues asked 60 people divided into four gender-segregated groups to read news stories gleaned from the latest global coverage. Two of the groups—one composed of men, the other of women—read neutral stories about movie premieres or new parks, for example, while the other two groups read negative stories about murders and accidents. After they finished reading, the researchers took samples of their participants’ saliva to calculate their stress levels. The researchers used cortisol, a hormone that reflects stress levels and can be detected in saliva, to measure their participants’ anxiety.
All of the participants also took part in a series of standardized thinking tasks—both mundane and stressful—which allowed the researchers to evaluate and compare people’s baseline stress levels. Surprisingly, the researchers said, the news stories alone did not increase stress levels, but they did make the women in the group more reactive and sensitive to later stressful situations, as measured in the standardized tests. In other words, the women who read the negative stories produced significantly higher levels of cortisol when faced with challenging tasks than those who read the neutral passages. The day after the experiment, all of the participants met back at the lab to talk about what they had read the day before. Compared to the men, the women also recollected more details from the negative stories.
The researchers credit evolutionary factors for this discrepancy, since an empathetic mother in tune to indirect threats to her offspring may be more successful at shielding them from potentially life-threatening situations. The researchers call for more investigation on the ways people differ when it comes to processing “the negative information that perpetually surrounds us.”
More from Smithsonian.com: