Conflicting health information can compromise our attention

By Emily Reynolds

We get our information about health from many sources. Sometimes we seek advice from doctors or other medical professionals; sometimes we talk to friends or family; we read newspapers and watch TV; and we diagnose ourselves with rare and alarming afflictions with the help of the internet.

In some ways, this variety offers a democratisation of knowledge, a way for more of us to understand what’s going on with our health. But what happens when this information contradicts itself? This is the subject of a new study from a team at Rutgers University, published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

Participants were first asked to read an article focused on whole grain intake and the health benefits of such food. In one condition, participants were shown positions on the topic that were congruent, reading that experts agreed whole grains were indeed healthy. In the other condition, participants read that experts disagreed about whether there were positive outcomes from eating whole grains.

They then took part in a game designed to test attention, in which they had to indicate as quickly as possible the direction of a target arrow, displayed among distractor arrows.

Following the game, participants rated how mentally demanding the task was, and indicated how confused they were about which foods are best to eat and how bored and tired they were of hearing about what foods are best to eat.

Those who had read conflicting health information had a lower correct response rate in the attention task than those who had read congruent information. These participants also took longer to respond to each stimuli during the trials, suggesting a decrease in cognitive processing speed. There was also a difference in how mentally demanding the task was for participants: those receiving conflicting information rated the game as being more work than those who did not. The team therefore suggests that the cognitive resources needed to process conflicting information can impact important attentional mechanisms.

Those who saw conflicting health information were also more likely to be confused by nutritional information, and had greater feelings of backlash towards nutritional information. This suggests that conflicting health information can not only tire us out and dull our responses but may also impact our behaviour, potentially putting us off from following advice about our health.

So how do we stop people from being overwhelmed by conflicting information? The team suggests that, in a clinical setting, health practitioners should seek to understand whether patients have been exposed to inconsistent messages, and help them clarify what they believe and why. More broadly, educational programmes that help people understand how best to analyse information could also ease some of the attentional demand of conflicting advice. And while we can’t prevent exposure to all forms of conflicting health information, the study may be one motivation to stop those anxiety-inducing Google self-diagnosis spirals.

– Healthy or not? The impact of conflicting health-related information on attentional resources

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest