Engaging the female audience: an evolutionary psychology perspective on gendered responses to news valence frames.

Author:Kamhawi, Rasha

Since the early 1960s television news has been the primary source of public affairs information for Americans (Roper, 1979). Yet, it has been increasingly criticized for its emphasis on negative events such as accidents, disasters, corruption, and conflict (Slone, 2000). Televised newscasts feature "more images of violence, suffering and death in half an hour than most people would normally view in a lifetime" (Newhagen, 1998, pp. 267).

Emphasis on bad news is not exclusive to the U.S. market (The Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 2004). In fact, negativity is internationally recognized as a key element of newsworthiness (Knobloch-Westerwick, Carpentier, Blumhojf, & Nickel, 2005). Negativity in news is also not a contemporary phenomenon or one particular to television--it is as old as the concept of mediated news itself. In fact, war news is one of the earliest historical forms of reporting (Bell, 1991).

Evolutionary psychology offers one possible explanation for the historically persistent media emphasis on bad news and the corresponding audience appetite for it. In fact, this perspective on negative news has been articulated by Shoemaker (1996) as human hard wiring for negative news. Surveying the environment for threats was detrimental to the survival of our ancestors (Plutchik, 1980). News media have assumed this surveillance function over the past few centuries by focusing on deviant and negatively compelling topics. Audiences respond to this mediated survival-relevant information based on their biological predisposition to pay attention to potential threats in their environment (Shoemaker, 1996). While human beings have a need for surveillance of their environment to respond to potential threats (negative stimuli) they are also predisposed to investigate opportunities (positive stimuli). However, awareness and action readiness for a threat is considered more important for survival than curiosity about opportunities (Knoblock-Westerwick et al., 2005).

While evolutionary psychology explains why one might be predisposed for attention to negative news, it also recognizes gender differences in responses to these mediated survival threats: Women tend to avoid them. In fact, a growing body of research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience supports the notion that women have a stronger avoidance response to negative stimuli than men (Canli, Desmond, Zhao, & Gabrieli, 2002; Knight, Guthrie, Page, & Fabes, 2002; Whissell, 1996; Wrase et al., 2003; Zald, 2003). There is some evidence that women's avoidance response to negative stimuli is manifested in their consumption of news. In fact, women remember and comprehend less of negative television news than men do (Grabe & Kamhawi, 2006; Hendriks Vettehen, Hietbrink, & Renckstorf, 1996). An experimental study confirmed that women report greater anxiety than men in response to negative news (Slone, 2000). Moreover, survey research shows that women are emotionally more sensitive to negative news than men. While 44% of Americans say they are often depressed by the news, women make up 53% of this figure while about one third of men (34%) acknowledge feeling depressed (The Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 2004). Women are more likely than men to report that coverage of wars and violence is the reason why they do not follow international news (Gibbons, 2003) and that they would like to see more positive news on television (Gallician, 1986).

If journalism's function in a democracy is to provide information to all citizens, the inherent negative tone of news stands as a potential barrier to enlightening about half of its potential audience. The goal of the experimental study reported here is to gain more insight into news reception, by comparing men and women's evaluative responses to negative news stories presented with subtle variations of the valence frames. By keeping factual content constant and subtly varying the valence frame, this study can test if negativity contributes to women's disinterest in the news. This might advance understanding of the gender gap in news reception and lead to ideas to make news accessible to all citizens.


Research has documented a pervasive human tendency to automatically classify most--if not all--incoming stimuli as either good or bad. It has been argued that evolution has designed this screening mechanism of environmental stimuli to ensure the organism's self-preservation (Plutchik, 1980; Rothermund, Wentura, & Bak, 2001). This mechanism, also referred to as affective processing, relies on a small number of important and easily detectable stimulus characteristics. It occurs without engaging intentional or conscious processing and does not require processing of the non-affective attributes of stimuli (Moors & De Houwer, 2006). However, the determination of whether a stimulus is good or bad, by itself, does not provide the organism with adaptive benefit. It is the action tendency that this realization results in that is of value. Evolution favors organisms that learn to withdraw and approach appropriately and quickly. This includes the ability to assess danger when confronted by it and an avoidance response (Cacioppo & Gardener, 1999; Green, Brock, & Kaufmann, 2004). Similarly, the ability to accurately judge stimuli as favorable (i.e., a food source or suitable mate), and the approach motivation to explore opportunities provide an evolutionary edge.

The approach-avoidance motivation has been shown to have utility across theoretical perspectives and areas of inquiry. Emotional content on television has been shown to elicit responses similar to those associated with the non-mediated world. The term "presence" has been developed to capture this illusion of non-mediation that occurs when media users respond to media content in ways that they would respond to stimuli they encounter in the physical world (Lombard & Ditton, 1997). Researchers propose that the distinction between mediated and non-mediated experiences comes as a thoughtful response but is preceded and constrained by automatic responses (Detenber & Reeves, 1996; Reeves & Nass, 1996). Those automatic emotional responses that are elicited towards mediated messages are of course less life detrimental than responses to real life stimuli hundreds of years ago when humans were more at the mercy of natural elements. Yet, it is unlikely that one can inhibit these primitive first responses when attending to media messages. In this sense, the similarity between mediated and non-mediated experiences makes the application of psychological theories about emotions productive for research of television message effects (Detenber & Reeves, 1996).

One approach to studying emotion distinguishes between valence and arousal, as the two main dimensions of emotion. Understanding the role of these dimensions sheds light on the mechanisms by which emotions affect information processing. The first dimension, valence, reflects the direction of the emotion and ranges from positive to negative. The second dimension, arousal, indicates the level of activation associated with the emotion and ranges from very calm/bored to very aroused/excited on the other end (P. Lang, Greenwald, Bradley, & Hamm, 1993). All emotions can be defined by their degree of valence and arousal (Barrett, 2004). For example, fear is a negatively valenced and high arousal emotion while serenity is positively valenced and a low arousal emotion. Moreover, the difference between sadness and grief is a matter of arousal as the valence is negative in both cases. Similarly, the difference between calmness and boredom is a matter of valence as both are characterized by low arousal. The third dimension, dominance, refers to the degree of control one feels during an emotional experience and ranges from feeling in control to feeling controlled by the emotion (P. Lang et al.). Dominance is the least studied dimension largely because it is a less stable dimension of emotional experience, its measurement is less reliable, and it does not have distinct physiological or behavioral correlates.

  1. Lang, Dhillon, and Dong (1995) found that highly arousing negative stimuli elicit an avoidance response, whereas Newhagen and Reeves (1992) and Newhagen (1998) found negative stimuli increased attention and memory for the stimuli (reflecting an approach motivation). A consideration of the arousal level of the stimuli used in the different studies may account for the discrepancy. Not all negative stimuli elicit avoidance--otherwise humans would be shy and timid creatures unable to navigate negative encounters in their environment. It seems that only highly arousing (compelling) negative stimuli elicit an automatic avoidance. Less arousing negative stimuli are more likely to be approached and processed (A. Lang et al., 1995).

Gender and Approach-Avoidance Patterns

A study of gender differences to positive and negative messages has to account for the level of arousal elicited by the stimuli (A. Lang, Potter & Grabe, 2003). The literature suggests that gender differences are unlikely to occur in response to negative stimuli that are at high levels or low levels of arousal. In the former case both genders would demonstrate an avoidance response (Knight et al., 2002). In the latter case, when the stimuli elicit low arousal, both genders might ignore stimuli because they are not engaging (Knight et al.; A. Lang et al., 2003). Yet, stimuli that elicit moderate levels of arousal seem more likely to be a productive scenario for testing gender differences in responding to variation in message valence.

Studies employing physiological and self-report measures consistently show that women are more likely than men to avoid moderately unpleasant situations (Knight et al., 2002; Wrase et al., 2003). This means that they tend to withhold processing resources to these messages because they were socialized and/or...

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