An interdisciplinary team is investigating how viewers process traumatic messages and how leaders can minimize harmful effects in times of crisis.
In the days immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, reports surfaced about the psychological impacts on children who repeatedly saw the videos of the World Trade Center towers fall. Not understanding it was the same video being shown over and over, these children became distressed, thinking that dozens – perhaps hundreds – of attacks were happening.
The media plays a vital role in conveying threats and disseminating information, particularly during disasters and attacks, but negative images can take their toll on viewers. How to biologically describe and then minimize that toll is the focus of a new research initiative by an interdisciplinary team of Texas Tech University researchers.
Erik Bucy, the Marshall and Sharleen Formby Regents Professor of Strategic Communication in the College of Media & Communication; Breanna Harris, a research assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences; Zachary Hohman, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences; and James Carr, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and faculty director of the Joint Admission Medical Program at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, are bringing together their vast and varied expertise to study the costs of negative image consumption on behavior and the human body.
Their efforts have brought them together in a 2016-17 Transdisciplinary Research Academy project titled "International Security and the Visual Environment: Biobehavioral Costs of Negative Image Consumption," funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research, and has already resulted in a grant submission to the Department of Defense.
"With the explosion of social media, click-bait articles and the 24-hour news cycle, we are constantly exposed to media designed to prey on human emotion," Hohman said. "Take, for example, the ability of ISIS to sculpt the ideology of young minds using emotionally charged messaging. Domestically, there is near-constant exposure to threatening news images, which prime anxiety, fear and the need for group belonging. Messages this potent are not without social, psychological and biological consequences."
Exposure to negative visual stimuli activates two of the major physiological mediators of anxiety, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system, Harris said. While a certain amount of anxiety and stress can enhance memory and promote information seeking, chronic levels contribute to social withdrawal, psychopathology and disease.
Additionally, exposure to emotion laden visual cues, whether encountered on the news or in social media, can influence cognitive function and impact individual and group behavior and identity in important ways.
"Alarmingly, there is almost nothing known about how complex visual media associated with external threats, such as terrorist attacks, or domestic crises, such as natural disasters, specifically influence physiological biomarkers of stress and anxiety," Carr said. "The impact of emotion-laden messaging on anxiety-based disorders, depression and risk-taking behaviors receives little attention and is not monitored in any systematic way. Given the international security environment and profusion of geopolitical visual messaging, understanding how emotional messages induce fear, promote group cohesion and influence behavior is a critical national need."
The project's overall objective is to understand:
- The features and emphases of traumatic news that invite media coverage and draw viewer attention;
- How depictions of terrorist attacks affect stress responses as measured by hormonal changes;
- How compelling visuals increase arousal and motivational activation in the viewer, how this arousal can lead to support for retaliation and how terrorist imagery succeeds or fails at enhancing group identification; and
- What types of leader communication or televised leader displays are most effective at calming citizens.
For this study, a series of experiments exposes participants to traumatic messages, particularly those involving threats to personal and national security, then measures participants' fear, anxiety and stress. To avoid having the research skewed by participants responding how they think they should feel rather than how they actually feel, the researchers are utilizing physiological measurements including hormonal responses, heart rate, skin conductance and facial muscle activation.
"All of these measures will allow us to more fully understand viewer processing of traumatic news reports and other fear-inducing visuals," Bucy said. "Our experiments are also designed to examine how the communication style of leaders as depicted in the mass media alters the impact that negative visual images have on stress. We're hoping to identify the nonverbal leader behaviors that lessen, or mitigate, anxiety in the face of crisis to better understand how to minimize harmful effects of extreme events like terrorist strikes and even natural disasters."
The team hopes the research will provide valuable insights to the scientific and policy making communities on how visual threats and emotional imagery promote radicalization and how leadership characteristics and intergroup relationships among different segments of society could mitigate such choices.
"Long-term goals and future data application include training modules that teach leaders how to use nonverbal cues to reduce stress in constituents, a framework for how media messages should be constructed to maximize information and minimize stress in viewers, and brain-imaging studies that identify exactly how threat messages alter neurochemistry, behavior and health," Carr said. "Our strong interdisciplinary approach will impact the areas of strategic communication, strategic defense, anti-terrorism, psychology and stress neuroendocrinology."
The project's interdisciplinary nature draws on the team members' various areas of expertise.
Harris is a behavioral endocrinologist with an interest in how stress and the physiological stress response influence health, behavior, reproduction and fitness.
Bucy's research primarily examines the visual and nonverbal aspects of compelling news and leader behavior. His experimental studies – which rely on information processing theory, affective intelligence and principles of visual persuasion – have examined the cognitive, emotional and physiological consequences of leader portrayals on television news, particularly their nonverbal components.
Hohman studies how social groups influence people's self-conception, attitudes, physiology and biology as they relate to health behaviors. The goal of his research is to integrate an understanding of basic cognitive processing into social interaction, societal-level dynamics and internal processes to explain health behavior.
Carr is a neuroendocrinologist who studies how hormones affect the brain and vice versa. He is most interested in how stress hormones affect subconscious behavior, which he studies in his laboratory using frogs as a model system.
They agree it's been interesting and informative to be able to work with peers from different backgrounds for a common goal.
"The most obvious change for me is the opportunity to actually work with humans rather than frogs," Carr joked. "As a basic researcher it is exciting to apply my knowledge to real-life scenarios, which I don't often do. Working with faculty from the College of Media & Communication and the Department of Psychological Sciences has opened my eyes to how everyday things, like watching a news broadcast or interacting socially with my friends, can modulate my response to emotionally laden news and change the context within which I process such cues."
Harris said it's been a positive experience to extend herself beyond her normal area of study.
"Having the ability to apply what I do to a larger contextual and integrative framework has been exciting and rewarding," she said. "As a biologist who primarily works on animals, I find it particularly rewarding to study evolutionarily conserved physiological and behavioral processes in humans. Being able to draw on evolution and comparative knowledge to generate hypotheses about human problems has given me a new appreciation for the integrative nature of my field."
Hohman said the collaboration has given him knowledge he can apply to his primary research focus.
"I find that working with great researchers from outside my area of research leads to interesting and informative studies that address important questions for society," he said. "Working on interdisciplinary projects leads me to ask different, important questions about my own research and has helped me expand my research into new and exciting areas."
Bucy added that, beyond the expertise of individual team members, the opportunity to work with such a diverse and collegial set of collaborators has been a motivating factor in pursuing this line of research.
"You always hope to assemble a team like this, but it's easier said than done," Bucy said. "In fact, it was really serendipitous how this all came together. I happened to meet Breanna one day at the Student Union Building's Starbucks and out of that one chance meeting we managed to assemble a diverse team of like-minded researchers focused on a pressing question at the intersection of media, emotion, visual processing and social dynamics. We really couldn't have planned it any better."