Research & Insights

How Feeling Threatened Biases Our Internet Searches

New research suggests that feeling threatened can lead us to bias our Internet searching towards reassuring, positive information, while potentially ignoring important warning signs.

These results come from a series of experiments conducted by researchers Hannah Greving and Kai Sassenberg and were published in the September 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. The researchers found that when participants felt threatened, they were more likely to pick out and recall positive information and ignore negative information.

One experiment took saliva samples from 41 undergraduate students to test for a medical intolerance for a (fake) food additive. Some of the participants received feedback that they had the intolerance (creating a threatening situation), while others were told that an error had occurred and they would not be able to receive their analysis (creating a neutral situation).

The participants were then presented with a series of 16 fictional links to web pages with more information about the intolerance. Some of the links contained positive information, such as promising medical treatments and positive side effects, while others contained negative information, such as foods the participants would have to avoid and the possibility of a weakened immune system. Participants were asked to select eight links they would like to investigate further.

The researchers found that participants who felt threatened by a medical food intolerance chose more positive links to view than the participants who had not received a diagnosis. The participants who didn’t feel as anxious chose a more balanced selection of positive and negative links to view.

Another experiment asked 41 undergraduate participants to either “think about a situation or task of your studies that is highly demanding at the moment, and that you are not able to deal with” or a situation “that is highly demanding at the moment but that you are very well able to deal with.”

After describing the stressful situation, participants were asked to learn about living organ donation “as if they were preparing a presentation for class.” They were given a series of 16 short texts and told “that they should read as if these texts were the outcome of their own Internet search.”

Some of the texts described neutral information about organ donation, such as the donating laws. Other texts contained positive information, such as “organ recipient received a second lifetime as a gift.” The remainder of the texts contained negative information, like the possibility of lengthy sick leave required for donors. After a break, participants were asked to write down what they remembered from the texts they read.

The researchers found that the participants who had been primed with a threatening situation that they weren’t able to deal with remembered more positive information about organ donation than the participants who thought about a situation with which they could cope.

“[T]hreatened individuals allocated more attention to positive information (i.e. selected more positive links and looked longer at positive web sites), and acquired more positive knowledge…compared with individuals” who did not feel threatened, the researchers report.

The study suggests that “health-threatened individuals who often use the Internet for health-related information search can represent their health overly optimistically…and may be at risk to make nonoptimal, inappropriate, or even wrong decisions.”

For communicators, then, it’s important to understand that your audience may be subconsciously selecting positive information about a situation when they feel threatened, and avoiding cold, hard truths.

Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied

Hannah Greving and Adam Fetterman, Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien, Tübingen, Germany
Kai Sassenberg, Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien, Tübingen, Germany, and the University of Tübingen

Posted: January 4, 2016
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