Overdosing on news can be bad for one's mental health, scholar says

November 01, 2001

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- In these uncertain times, what do authorities on uncertainty management advise? Although it sounds counterintuitive, some suggest that people should back off now and then from information seeking. In some cases, too much information can be hazardous to one's mental health.

So says Dale Brashers, an authority on the burgeoning field of uncertainty management and a professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois. Much of his work over the last several years has focused on patients' uncertainty concerning HIV and AIDS.

Because of the current uncertainty about the dangers of bioterrorism and other terrorist acts, people want more information, Brashers said, acknowledging that it is "perfectly natural" to think that gathering information will help reduce uncertainty.

"But this is a case in which information may simply cause greater anxiety, particularly if the information forecasts negative consequences or if it is contradictory or unclear."

Which is why he believes that "Sometimes people need to back away from the onslaught of information." Doing so can be difficult, "especially when we want to be vigilant about possible risks," he said. "It can also be difficult because of the constant media attention and what is labeled 'accidental exposure' to information."

Even in better times, uncertainty management involves a kind of mental balancing act - "a balance between a desire for information and a need to avoid extreme or pathological anxiety." This moment in time, when cases of inhalation anthrax - and deaths caused by it - are being verified, not only is taxing citizens, it also is taxing the experts: the Postmaster General, the Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control, Brashers said.

"This is an area in which the science seems to change from minute to minute," he said. "So in addition to uncertainty about the possibility of bioterrorist attacks, we now also have questions - and uncertainty - about expert advice. And this can call into question a core value: our trust in scientific knowledge for everyday concerns - food and product safety, health and illness information and so on."

Thus, although we have to be vigilant for acts of terrorism because we now know the threats are real, "we also have to be careful to avoid obsessive information seeking, such as overly frequent monitoring of newscasts and obsessive thinking or 'ruminating' about the threat." "People should listen to trusted sources, realize that media sources may be inaccurate because they are trying to disseminate information rapidly and - from time to time - verify information through health agencies."

Brashers wrote "Communication and Uncertainty Management," which appears in the current issue of the Journal of Communication, a special issue on uncertainty, evaluation and communication.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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