Negative news articles increase women’s sensitivity to stressful situations, but do not have a similar effect on men, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of Montreal’s Centre for Studies on Human Stress also found that women had a clearer recollection of the information they had learned.
“It’s difficult to avoid the news, considering the multitude of news sources out there,” said lead author and doctoral student Marie-France Marin. “And what if all that news was bad for us? It certainly looks like that could be the case.”
The researchers asked 60 people to read actual news stories. They were divided into four groups: A group of men and a group of women who read neutral news stories about the opening of a new park or the premiere of a new movie, and a group of men and a group of women who read negative stories about murders and accidents.
Before the subjects began reading, the researchers took samples of their saliva and analyzed them for cortisol. Higher levels of this hormone indicate higher levels of stress, the scientists explain. When they were done reading, saliva samples were taken again to determine the effect of the news stories.
“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,” said Sonia Lupien, Ph.D., Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress and a professor at the university’s Department of Psychiatry. “This led us to believe that reading a negative news story should provoke the reader’s stress reaction.”
The participants were then confronted with a series of standardized tasks involving memory and intellect that enable researchers to evaluate and compare how people react to stressful situations. A final round of saliva samples was then taken to determine the effects of this experience.
Finally, the next day, the participants were called back to talk about what they had read. The researchers said they were surprised by what they found.
“Although the news stories alone did not increase stress levels, they did make the women more reactive, affecting their physiological responses to later stressful situations,” Marin said, explaining they discovered this when they saw that the cortisol levels in the women who read the negative news was higher after the “stress” part of the experiment compared to the women who read the neutral news.
“Moreover, the women were able to remember more of the details of the negative stories,” she said. “It is interesting to note that we did not observe this phenomenon amongst the male participants.”
The researchers believe that evolutionary factors may be at play, noting that other scientists have considered whether concern about the survival of their children may have influenced the evolution of the female stress system, leading women to be more empathetic. This theory would explain why women could be more susceptible to indirect threats, the researchers claim.
“More studies should be undertaken to better understand how gender, generational differences and other socio-cultural factors affect our experience, as individuals, of the negative information that perpetually surrounds us,” Marin said.
The findings were published in PLOS One.
Source: University of Montreal