Bad news for women: negative media and stress – experts respond

With 24 hour news channels, smart phones and constant exposure to the internet, it is almost impossible to avoid news media. But what effect could this exposure be having on the rest of our lives? A new study has found that reading negative news articles can increase women’s – but not mens’ – sensitivity to stressful situations.

The findings, published today in PLOS One, were based on an experiment in which participants read neutral or negative new articles and underwent an mock interview and arithmetic test designed to be mildly stress inducing. As a measure of physiological stress, researchers analysed the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva samples at various stages.

They found that women who read negative news reports before undertaking the stressful tasks had much higher levels of salivary cortisol (and assumed stress) post-stress test compared to those who only read neutral news articles. A similar effect was not seen in men. Women who participated in the study also had a clearer recollection of the negative news they had read compared to that of males.

The researchers believe that evolutionary factors may be at play, noting that other scientists have considered whether an emphasis on the survival of offspring may have influenced the evolution of the female stress system, leading women to be more empathetic.

Our colleagues at the UK SMC collected the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to contact a New Zealand expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476;

Q&A with Dr Louise Arseneault, Reader in Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London:

Q. Do you agree with the conclusions of this paper? Are they surprising?

A. The literature on physiological stress reaction is still very mixed. Efforts to pool together the findings on the mechanisms by which the body react to stress to get a clear picture are still on-going. We are not there yet!  These findings could contribute to a better understanding of this important process.  At the very least, the paradigm used here is novel and interesting and could be used to replicate the results in other larger scale studies.

An interesting feature of this study is how the authors combined cognitive and stress reactivity.  These mechanisms are likely to work together to explain why some people are more stress reactive than others. Am I surprised? No. The gender difference is difficult to account for and the authors acknowledge this. There are no obvious mechanisms that could explain why women recall more bad news and react more strongly to later stressors compared to men.  Is this a chance finding? Possibly given the small sample size. I think that we need a replication of these findings before inferring strong conclusions from this paper.

Q. To what extent can the results be applied to the real world?  How does this research compare to other studies exploring gender differences and stress?

A. Difficult to say to what extent these results can be applied to the real world based on such a small sample. But the news was real and the second stressor (TSST) is a well validated stress test.

Q. Is the methodology of the study robust?

A. One big point here is that the sample size is very small. In addition, it is not clear whether the participants are representative of the population. We definitely need a validation of those findings from a larger group of people. It is also not clear whether the second stressor (TSST) can be generalised to the other “real life” stressors. Maybe men would react as strongly as women if they were put to a different, maybe more realistic test.

Terrie Moffitt, Professor of Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London:

“According to self-report studies, women say they are more “stress reactive” on average than men. This study adds fascinating new evidence of change in a stress hormone after an experimental stress challenge.

“Stress researchers confront a real gender puzzle: As a group, women seem more reactive to stressors, but then they go on outlive men by quite a few years. How do women manage to neutralise the effects of stress on their cardiovascular systems?  An answer to that question would improve health for all of us.”

Q&A with Dr Jennifer Wild, Consultant Clinical Psychologist & Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London:

Q. Do you agree with the conclusions of this paper? Are they surprising?

A. This is a novel study and the results are surprising.  Women are more at risk of the effects of stress after seeing negative news on TV.  More research is needed to pin down the mechanism through which negative TV news heightens stress reactions in women.

Q. To what extent can the results be applied to the real world?

A. The results suggest that watching negative TV news prior to a stressful activity, such as a job interview, may result in more stress in women than men.  This heightens women’s risk of suffering a cascade of negative health effects linked to stress.

Q. How does this research compare to other studies exploring gender differences and stress?

A. This study further supports a growing body of research highlighting greater propensity for stress in women.  It is particularly relevant to women in high stress occupations, such as emergency service workers, who are frequently exposed to challenging tasks.

Q. Is the methodology of the study robust?

A. The main problems with the study are the sample size and failure to control for key factors that affect cortisol, such as sleep.  The sample size was very small and particularly small in the sub-analyses, which looked at women in different stages of the menstrual cycle.

Dr Roger Kingerlee, Clinical Psychologist at St Giles’s Clinic, said:

“This study lends further weight to a growing body of work highlighting small but significant psychological sex differences. Such differences include emotional and empathic abilities and psychological styles, as well the stress reactivity discrepancies noted in the current research.

“Taken together, such findings may well help explain noted behavioural sex differences, like male risk-taking behaviour – some of which, of course, may inform the news agenda itself, day-to-day.”