The spread of bad news — fake or otherwise — is likely to be on everybody’s minds at the moment. Whether it’s legitimate updates on the spread or symptoms of coronavirus, or sensationalism more to do with page clicks than scientific fact, it can be hard to tune out of the news cycle — and to know what information you should be passing on to friends and family.
Past research has found that alarming information is likely to spread further than positive information; we’re also more likely to share news that confirms our own beliefs and biases. But what impact does the experience of stress have on the sharing of negative or alarming news? A new study published in Scientific Reports suggests a complex relationship between the two.
To examine the relationship between stress and the spread of alarming information, Nathalie Popovic at the University of Konstanz and colleagues recruited 141 participants, who were split into two groups. Half completed a control task, writing notes for a hypothetical job interview that only they would see. The other half prepared the same notes — but, in this condition, were then asked to explain to two interviewers why they were a good fit for the job and perform a mental arithmetic task in order to raise their levels of stress.
Both groups then read six articles about Triclosan, a controversial chemical substance sometimes used in toothpaste, detergents, soaps, and other consumer goods. Each article took a different position on the substance, containing a variety of positive, negative and neutral statements about it (despite widespread use, some research suggests it may not be safe). Before and after reading the information, they were asked whether they had heard of Triclosan, whether they were likely to have been exposed to it, and how they perceived the risk of chemical substances in general and Triclosan specifically. They were also given 17 minutes to write a message to another participant about Triclosan.
Throughout the experiment — at twelve to fifteen minute intervals — subjective stress levels were measured using a scale of one to ten and cortisol was measured using saliva samples.
All participants reported an increase in concern after reading articles about Triclosan. But participants in the stress group — who had higher levels of cortisol — were less influenced by the articles, showing a smaller increase in concern than those in the control group. They were also less likely to share alarming information in their messages to other participants. The bigger the increase in cortisol, the smaller the increase in concern. But those who reported subjective feelings of stress — even if unrelated to the task at hand — were both more concerned and more likely to share alarming information.
Why the contrast? In a supporting article, co-author Wolfgang Gaissmaier suggests that acute physiological stress reactions may result in adaptive processes intended to calm us down. For instance, we may naturally downplay negative information when stressed, reducing the perception of risk and leaving us better able to respond to the situation in front of us. Feeling stressed, on the other hand, may make us feel more alarmed about risky situations, even when they’re not directly related to the source of our anxiety — and may make us more likely to share that stress with others via alarming information.
Both reactions have downsides. The endocrine stress reaction may make us underestimate risk, potentially blinding us to genuinely dangerous situations. Overestimating risk, as was seen in subjectively stressed participants, might also get us into trouble: the team uses the example of anti-vaxxers, who erroneously judge vaccines as dangerous and therefore put themselves at risk of serious illness.
There have been ongoing discussions about the spread of alarming views — including those of anti-vaxxers — for the last few years; never have they been more relevant than at the moment, when much of the world is wracked with anxiety and faced with a seemingly endless stream of bad news. Understanding the circumstances in which negative information is more or less likely to spread may help us tackle it before it does too much damage.