updated 10/8/2009 2:28:58 PM ET 2009-10-08T18:28:58

Remember the global financial crisis? How about the H1N1 flu virus? Al-Qaida? Climate change?

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Each of these headline-grabbing issues poses a threat to our well-being, but the way we perceive these dangers might depend on how recently we read about them, a study from the University of Colorado suggests.

The findings, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, show just how intense the 24-hour news cycle can be for some — especially in a world where people are bombarded with information from all sides.

Social psychologist Leaf Van Boven and colleagues asked 113 college-aged participants to rate their feelings about the threat posed by travel to two countries where terrorists are active.

The subjects read two travel advisories in a randomly assigned order — one on Kenya and one on the Indonesian island of Bali — based on material from the U.S. State Department.

They were then asked which country seemed to have greater terrorist threats. After reading the second warning, they were also asked to rate the potential threat posed by each nation on a scale of one to seven.

Van Boven and his colleagues found the travel advisory that participants read most recently was consistently considered more threatening than the one read first. These ratings largely matched those given by people in a control group, who were asked to provide a threat rating after having just read one travel advisory.

The research showed that when people learn about risk, they respond more strongly to those threats that are immediately before them.

The study also showed that after the initial emotional reaction has dwindled and been reduced to a memory — a process known as emotional decay — perceived risk also declines.

When participants were asked the next day to again rate the risk of travel to both Bali and Kenya, they rated the risk in both countries nearly identically — and both as substantially less threatening.

"The implication is that once an emotional experience decays, the emotional distortion that accompanied it also goes away too," said Van Boven in an interview with Discovery News.

Van Boven feels his findings have broader implications for the media and how they report threats and risks. He suggests that providing the public with comparisons of the dangers associated with a threat might be a good idea.

"People are good at understanding when the danger of one risk is higher than another risk," he said, "especially when provided with a comparison."

Jack Bratich, a professor of media studies at Rutgers University, said Van Boven's findings should inform how the media presents material to the public.

"Media don't just deliver facts," Bratich told Discovery News, "they stimulate our nervous system and shape our ability to assess information. Van Boven is right in making us rethink what media responsibility means."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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