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Older people may get a self-esteem boost by reading negative stories about younger people

August 31, 2010

Show of hands -- who loves schadenfreude?

People over 50 seem to, according to a new study that shows older people prefer reading negative news over positive news about younger people.

The study of German volunteers included 178 people ages 18 to 30 and 98 people ages 50 to 65. They browsed articles in what they were told was an experimental version of a new online magazine.

The random mix of fake stories focused on one person who was older or younger, and there were two versions of each story -- one positive and one negative. One positive headline, for example, read, "Patient awarded 250,000 Euro in malpractice lawsuit," while the flip-side version read, "Brain-damaged patient loses appeal -- Lack of malpractice evidence forces patient to pay back 250,000 Euro." The stories were accompanied by a photo of the person mentioned in the story, so their approximate age was clear.

Researchers noted which stories the study participants read and how long they spent reading.

Older people were more likely to choose negative stories about younger people, while younger people preferred reading positive stories about their peers. Older people were split when it came to reading positive and negative stories about their own age group. Younger people didn't show much interest in reading about older people.

Older people didn't just like reading negative stories about younger people, they also got a self-esteem boost out of it -- the more negative stories they read, the higher their self-esteem. Younger people, however, showed no changes in self-worth despite reading more positive stories about their peers.

The study appears in the September issue of the Journal of Communication.

-- Jeannine Stein / Los Angeles Times

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