Seniors get a boost reading bad news about the youth: Study

New research shows that the elderly prefer to read bad news about the youth. This is possibly because it makes them feel better about themselves say researchers.

Study author Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, an associate professor at Ohio State University's School of Communication says, “The more time they spent with negative news about young people, the higher self-esteem they reported. They may get some self-esteem boost out of this.” She said that young people, when given the choice, would rather read about people their own age and are not very interested in stories about their elders, whether the articles are positive or negative. She concludes from this study that people “are not just neutral processors of information. They have a lot of biases in their selections.” The findings appear in the September issue of the Journal of Communication.

For the study the Knobloch-Westerwick and co-researcher Matthias R. Hastall, a PhD student at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany recruited 178 young people (aged 18 to 30) and 98 older people (aged 50 to 65) and asked them to read news stories online. The participants were able to choose which stories they wanted to read. The stories included “human interest” ones that focused on a specific person. The idea was to study the preference for stories that were about bad things happening to non-celebrities (losing a malpractice suit, for instance) or good things (winning a malpractice suit). Each participant was given a limited amount of time to look over either a negative or positive version of 10 pre-selected articles. Each article was paired with a photograph depicting someone of the older or younger age group. Each story focused on one person, but there were two versions -- one that had a positive spin and the other a negative one. The study participants were offered just one of the two versions.

In addition, participants were told they would not have time to read all the stories and were instructed to click on the ones they found interesting. The participants were given a random mix of positive and negative stories about both younger and older people. Older participants were more likely to choose negative articles about younger people, but did not show a stronger preference for either positive or negative stories about people in their own age group.

As explanation to this trend researchers say that the society tends to assign older people to a lower status than younger people. Looking for negative stories about the young and those with a higher status, may help older people feel better, said Knobloch-Westerwick. She said, “everybody likes to think they're better than other people in some way…If you get information that confirms that, you might like it.”

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor who studies happiness at the University of California, Riverside, this study does not compare with other happiness studies that show that happy people “don't compare themselves to people who are worse off.” Lyubomirsky added, “They feel good about themselves, and they don't need it. It's like putting someone down to make yourself feel better.”

According to Knobloch-Westerwick this study throws light on how people decide what to read. She said, “We think people are rational and they use the news to stay up to date as part of the democratic process…But a lot of other factors play a role. You like to see your own group do well, and get a self-esteem boost out of it.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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  1. John Lauren John Lauren Australia says:

    Not surprising in the least. When I mention that I am a school teacher I often get given a negative view of the younger generations  - in particular about their rudeness, lack of respect, and laziness.  
    The reason as to why many of the elderly do this is perhaps significantly more complex than simply gaining an assurance of self-worth by negating those who represent youthfulness with all its potent energy and beauty. Many are genuinely concerned that an erosion of their traditional values - cornerstones of their world - will steadily collapse the integrity and strength of our societies. It is quite understandable and usual that people will feel better when they have had a chance to express their concerns.

  2. Ernie Fritsch Ernie Fritsch Australia says:

    The study on what the elderly think of the youth of today should have been carried out internationally. I am 60 something and would like nothing better than to read about young people making a success of their lives. This would make me feel better. I think the study is flawed.

  3. george george United Kingdom says:

    This type of study is of no use at all - just meant to widen the gap
    between generations!

  4. Grandpa Grandpa Australia says:

    If the world is to survive our kids better be a lot smarter than us, and I think that (apart from the usual few miss-fits) they are.

    Grand pa

  5. Andy Andy Australia says:

    I always thought old people had it in for younger ones! Is this whey the BB generation so thoroughly screwed the following generations?

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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