It’s all propaganda: New research suggests media coverage about disease outbreaks is designed to control what you think and remember about the disease

A study published in the journal Psychological Science, the flagship publication of the Association for Psychological Science, reveals that mass media coverage and personal anxiety influence people about the facts they both remember and forget during a disease outbreak.

“The starting point for our study was the exaggerated coverage of Ebola in 2014 despite the absence of any serious consequences in the United States. The common sense intuition is that in situations like these, in which health risks are exaggerated by the media, the audience pays more attention to the information presented,” psychological scientist Alin Coman explains.

As part of the online study, Coman and study co-author Jessica Berry examined the correlation between mass media coverage and personal anxiety over meningococcal disease, a real disorder that most people are not aware of. The experts enrolled 460 adult participants in the U.S. The volunteers were presented with facts about the specific symptoms, risk factors, diagnostic tools and aftereffects tied to meningococcal disease. The participants were also instructed to read a message about the disease.

Some of the participants read a “low-risk” message, which discussed the low likelihood of contracting the disease in the country. On the other hand, some patients read a “high-risk” message that discussed the consequences of the disease such as high mortality rate in certain age groups. The messages were designed to differentiate the anxiety levels among the participants.

Moreover, the participants were instructed to listen to a radio show clip that supposedly featured an expert on meningococcal disease. The volunteers then completed a surprise recall test after watching the clip. The test prompted the participants to remember as many previously learned disease characteristics as they could including symptoms, risk factors, diagnostic tools and after-effects.

Participants in both the low- and high-risk groups appeared to be better at remembering disease facts that were repeated in the radio show clip compared with information not featured in it.  The results demonstrated that if the radio show clip only focused on two symptoms and two after-effects, the volunteers were more likely to forget the other symptoms and after-effects they had learned prior to watching the clip. The experts also noted that the increased anxiety levels in the high-risk group seemed to play a central role in this forgetting phenomenon.

“The audience experiences a paradoxical effect by which the more attention they pay to the expert, due to increased anxiety, the more likely they are to forget information that is related to what the expert mentions. Media outlets may not know whether a public health risk will have serious consequences down the line, but I believe that they have to be better calibrated to the events on the ground and properly evaluate public health risks. The exaggeration of these risks causes people to forget potentially relevant information,” Coman adds.

Coman considers conducting further research in order to identify behavioral strategies that may be used by both the mass media and health care industries to ensure the accuracy and efficiency of information that is presented to the general public.

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