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.”