Older people prefer to read negative news stories about the young, possibly because it makes them feel better about themselves, a new study suggests.
“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,” said study author Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, an associate professor at Ohio State University’s School of Communication.
As for young people in the study, they weren’t particularly drawn to stories about older people, or to negative stories about any group.
Overall, the findings suggest that people “are not just neutral processors of information. They have a lot of biases in their selections,” said Knobloch-Westerwick.
The researchers recruited 178 young people (aged 18 to 30) and 98 older people (aged 50 to 65) in Germany and asked them to read news stories online. The participants were able to choose which stories they wanted to read.
Some of the stories were “human-interest” pieces that focused on a specific person. The researchers wanted to figure out if the participants had a 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).
The findings appear in the September issue of the Journal of Communication.
Why did the older people prefer negative stories about younger people? When it came to stories about older people — like themselves — they had no preference for positive versus negative.
Society tends to assign older people to a lower status than younger people, Knobloch-Westerwick explained. Looking for negative stories about the young — those with a higher status — may help older people feel better, she said.
Also, “everybody likes to think they’re better than other people in some way,” she said. “If you get information that confirms that, you might like it.”
This could explain why older people who chose negative stories about the young had higher self-esteem.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor who studies happiness at the University of California, Riverside, said the study conflicts with other research that shows happier 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.”
So why does this research matter? It helps shed light on how people make decisions about what they read, Knobloch-Westerwick said.
“We think people are rational and they use the news to stay up to date as part of the democratic process,” she said. “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.”