Study shows how men and women use news media differently to manage anger

COLUMBUS , Ohio When men and women are angry, they both choose the news media articles they read with the goal of regulating their moods, a new study suggests.

But, in some circumstances, men choose to read articles that will fuel their anger, while women choose articles that will dissipate it.

Researchers found that when men were angered and anticipate the chance to retaliate, they chose to read negative online news stories, presumably to sustain their anger until their opportunity to get even.

Women faced with the same situation, however, chose to read more positive news to help dissipate their anger before a possible confrontation.

"For women, it is not seen as appropriate for them to retaliate when they're angry, but it is OK for men. And that's reflected in their selection of media content," said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University.

"This shows that even our news consumption is not motivated just by information concerns. We use news to regulate our moods."

Knobloch-Westerwick conducted the study with Scott Alter of the University of Michigan. Their results were published in a recent issue of the journal Human Communication Research.

The study involved 86 college students. Participants thought they were participating in two unrelated experiments.

In the first experiment, the students sat in front of a computer screen and given an impossible task: to evaluate photos of people with neutral expressions on their faces. They were asked to select which one of six emotions anger, fear, sadness, disgust, happiness, and surprise each face represented. They were shown 20 faces, each for just two seconds.

"There was really no way to tell which emotions the people in the photos were feeling," Knobloch-Westerwick said.

Their answers were really irrelevant anyway, she said. The person supervising the experiment gave each participant one of two standard responses after the experiment: one designed to provoke low levels of anger, and one to provoke high levels.

Depending on the anger level selected, the supervisor told the participants they got 45 or 85 percent of the answers wrong, and that this reflects either their "fairly weak" or "unusable" social skills.

In one more twist, half the people were told before they began the experiment that they would have the opportunity to evaluate the supervisor of the experiment, and recommend whether this person should keep his job. This was the opportunity some participants had for retaliation against the person who angered them.

Next, participants were told they would begin the second study, in which they evaluated an experimental online magazine. They saw a contents screen that showed 12 stories, all from real magazines. Half were pre-selected as positive stories, and half were negative. The students were told they would not have time to read them all, and to choose the ones that most interested them.

Software logged the time that the participants spent reading each article.

After this experiment, those who were promised the opportunity to evaluate the supervisor were given the chance to do so.

Results showed that men given the chance to retaliate against the supervisor were more likely to choose negative news over positive news, while women chose the positive news.

But for participants who were not given the opportunity to retaliate against the supervisor, there was not as much difference between men and women's media choices. In this case, men were much more likely to read positive news than those who had the chance to retaliate.

That's because these participants didn't have to "manage" their mood in preparation for a chance to retaliate, Knobloch-Westerwick said. That meant men didn't have to use their news reading to sustain their anger, and women didn't have to dissipate their anger.

The results didn't show any difference in those provoked to low anger versus those provoked to high anger, she said.

Overall, the findings suggest people may sometimes use their media choices to put them in the right frame of mind for upcoming events.

"You want to make sure your mood fits whatever situation you're in," Knobloch-Westerwick said. "Media choices can help you do that."

For example, commuters facing a stressful drive home from work may choose calming, relaxing music on the radio.

"Our media use is not just for entertainment or information. It can also be functional, helping us to regulate our moods for what we're doing."

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Contact: Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, (614) 292-6801; Knobloch-Westerwick.1@osu.edu (E-mail is best way to reach Knobloch-Westerwick)

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-- Robert Frost