Forgettable study sparks sexist headlines about women remembering

There was absolutely no evidence that reading bad news led to immediate increases in stress responses for either sex. Dani/Flickr

Attention women of the world: according to a flood of recent news headlines (78 at last count), it’s time to stop watching the news because negative news stories stress you out more than they do men.

These headlines were prompted by a study published last week in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE. The study claimed that after reading negative news stories, women were more reactive to stress and more likely to remember than men.

What a fascinating notion. There I was thinking my ability to remember negative news stories was in some way attributable to my excellent memory, but it turns out it’s just because I’m a woman.

Or is it?

Before you reach for the remote control, it’s worth taking a detailed look at the study.

The study

Conducted by Canadian researchers Marie-France Marin and her colleagues, the study comprised 28 men and 28 women (perhaps this small sample size should have rung alarm bells!). Half were given 12 neutral news stories to read, while the other half read 12 negative news stories.

Participants were then exposed to a test that’s designed to measure psychological stress. The test involved completing a mock job interview speech and doing some mental arithmetic. Saliva samples were collected at ten-minute intervals throughout the study to measure a hormone called cortisol, which is released in response to stress.

The next day, participants were telephoned and asked to recall the news items they had read the day before.

What they found

A closer look at the design of the study and its results suggests that it may be a bit early for women to turn off the news.

First, there was absolutely no evidence that reading bad news led to immediate increases in stress responses for either sex. Rather, it appears that after the stress test, those women who had read the negative news had significantly higher average stress responses than those women who read the neutral news.

Variability in scores between individuals of the same sex are far greater than any difference observed between the average scores of men and women. Paul Stoker

This finding suggests that reading negative news leads to an increased stress response to future stressors. Men’s average stress responses were also higher to negative news than neutral news, but the difference between men’s averages was not statistically significant.

And the data provided no suggestion that the emotional valence of the news items affected stress responses differently in men and women. In order for the researchers to make such a claim, it would’ve been necessary to observe a statistical interaction between the emotion inspired by the news items and the sex of the participants. But this was not observed. And men had consistently higher stress responses than women throughout the study, regardless of the news content.

The second finding of interest is that, on average, women recalled significantly more negative news items than men.

This effect should be interpreted very cautiously. Individuals differ in their memory performance and the study didn’t include a baseline measure of this. Nor did it control for a whole host of factors that can influence memory performance, such as age, mood and attention.

These individual differences are particularly likely to result in inaccurate conclusions when dealing with such small sample sizes.

What should we conclude?

So we should be really cautious about giving too much credence to the suggestion that women remember more negative news events than men. At least until such findings are replicated with a larger sample size using a more tightly controlled research design.

And if they are replicated, it’s important to keep in mind what this would actually mean. From the news headlines, you’d be forgiven for thinking that bad news stresses all women out, more than all men. But this is not the case.

Observed sex differences mean that the average score for women is significantly different, statistically speaking, to the average score for men. In the case of mental differences in particular, we typically find that variability in scores between individuals of the same sex are far greater than any difference observed between the average scores of men and women.

The factors that influence what we remember and how the news affects us are complex and varied. I suspect they have a great deal more to do with our capacity to empathise with their content and remember them than what sex chromosomes we’re carrying.