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Seniors like bad news about young people

Study: Older people get a self-esteem boost after reading stories of young people in a negative light.

Marissa Cevallos

Sentinel Staff Writer

September 28, 2010

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It's no secret America loves to watch celebrities like Tiger Woods and Lindsay Lohan go down like the Titanic.

But if you're older, reading negative articles about younger people comes with a self-esteem boost, according to a new study.

When presented with news stories about young people at a computer laboratory, older people tended to select stories of young people failing and spent longer reading them, found researchers from Ohio State and colleagues in from the Zeppelin University Friedrichstafen in Germany.

The more they read about youth failing, the more older people reported feeling better about themselves.

Researchers told a mix of 276 old (50—65 years old) and young (18—30 years old) German adults that they were previewing articles for an online magazine. They were told to look through 10 articles, but there wouldn't be enough time to read every one. Each person saw a random selection of positive and negative stories about either young or old people, each with an accompanying picture.

Headlines from positive stories read like this, as translated from German: "Visitation rights gained after daring protest—Demonstration at 100 feet high a success."

Negative stories had a twist: "Visitation rights denied despite daring protest—Demonstration at 100 feet high in vain."

Older people were more likely to read negative stories about youth, but had no preference for stories about their own age group. Younger people didn't care to read about old people, but preferred positive stories about themselves.

After browsing the online magazine, participants took a self-esteem questionnaire. Young people had no change in their self-esteem based on what they'd read, but the more negative stories that older people read, the higher their self-esteem.

The biggest surprise, said the researchers, was how much the age groups differed.

"We think it's because young people are still interested in figuring out who they are," said lead author Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a communications professor at Ohio State.

"For older readers, they are more interested in boosting their self-esteem," she said.