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Study: Give Older Adults Good Health News First, Then the Bad

Older adults are more likely to engage with negative health information when they are given the good news first, according to a new study published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

“There’s a lot of research showing that older adults prefer positive information, often avoiding or ignoring negative information,” said coauthor Dr. Tom Hess, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University. “That can have consequences for older adults, particularly when it comes to information regarding their health. We wanted to see if there was a way to overcome this positivity bias when it comes to health news.”

The study involved 196 adults, ages 65 to 80, who were divided into four groups.

The first group was shown images to put them in a negative mood; the second group was shown images to put them in a positive mood. The third group completed a health checklist designed to make them feel bad about the healthiness of their lifestyle choices, and the final group completed a checklist designed to make them feel good about their lifestyle choices.

Participants were then shown the headlines of six articles about health. Three of the headlines were negative, but offered information relevant to the health of the study participants. The other three headlines were positive, but were less likely to provide participants with useful information. Participants were asked to choose any three of the six articles to read.

The results show that participants who completed the “positive” health checklist read more than 50 percent more of the articles that had negative headlines, compared to those who completed the “negative” checklist.

“Specifically, study participants who completed the checklist giving them a positive attitude toward their health chose to read, on average, about 60 percent of the negative articles, whereas participants who completed the negative checklist chose only 37 percent of the negative articles,” said Claire Growney, a Ph.D. student at NC State and lead author of the paper.

“There was no effect for participants who did not complete the health checklist and whose moods were only influenced by images. We also ran the same study with a group of 201 younger adults, and there was no effect with any of the groups there. This tells us that having a positive attitude toward health may primarily affect the willingness of older adults to engage with negative health news.”

“We also asked the study participants what their motivations were before reviewing the health articles, and found that older adults with positive attitudes toward their health were more likely to seek out health-related news that was relevant to their own lives.”

To confirm these findings, the team repeated the study with 199 adults between the ages of 65 and 85. This time they focused only on the negative and positive health checklists. In addition, the health article headlines were split into four categories: positive and informative; negative and informative; positive and not informative; and negative and not informative.

“In this second study, we found participants who completed the positive checklist were over 30 percent more likely to select articles with negative headlines to read — but only if the headlines were also informative,” Growney said.

“Specifically, the group with positive attitudes toward their health again chose to read about 60 percent of the negative/informative articles, while the group with negative attitudes toward their health chose only about 40 percent of the negative/informative articles.”

The new findings have practical value in terms of how negative information can be shared with older adults regarding their health, said Hess. “For example, it may be useful for a health care provider to say ‘here’s what looks good’ before talking to a patient about recommendations regarding diet or exercise.”

Source: North Carolina State University


Study: Give Older Adults Good Health News First, Then the Bad

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). Study: Give Older Adults Good Health News First, Then the Bad. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 5 Mar 2019 (Originally: 6 Mar 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 5 Mar 2019
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