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Searching for a Feeling

• November 18, 2009 • 12:12 PM

Can compulsively searching, instead of merely surfing, lead to greater cognitive benefits for netizens?

When the Lakers lose a big game, I tend to avoid Sportscenter and the usual negative pundits or shrill Los Angeles Times columnists. Hearing them over-analyze, dissect and cruelly denounce my favorite team can be unbearable in those few sensitive hours after a crushing loss.

Of course when they win, I scour the Web for all related content. I search eagerly for — and bask in — any accolades, gratuitous analysis and championship proclamations that my (now) favorite pundits spew out. I google Bill Plaschke’s gleefully over-the-top newspaper columns, revel in fan comments on the Kamenetzky brothers’ Lakers Blog and even look forward to what morsels of praise Bill Simmons (a devoted Celtics fan) will begrudge Kobe in his next lengthy diatribe. Searching for these articles just feels good.

Apparently, I’m not unique to this routine.

A new study published in the Journal of Media Psychology finds that those who purposefully search for written text online are more emotionally compelled by the content (and have better recollection of it) than those who passively surf (simply clicking through hyperlinks) on the Web.

The results — while not exactly surprising — nevertheless demonstrate that the way we seek information often influences, even determines, how we process it once it’s been obtained.

In the study, 92 participants were divided into two groups: searchers and surfers. Prior to roaming a fake news Web site, the searchers were given a description of several headlines and briefs, and were told to make a mental note of the most interesting items before subsequently searching for and reading the articles online.

In contrast, surfers were immediately given access to the fake news site, told to roam through the pictures and headlines, and pick and read an article based on passing interest. Later, when researchers administered a basic quiz about the content of the articles the searchers, as presumed, recalled many more details than the passive surfers.

More importantly, searchers were found to be far more emotionally invested in the content they read.

In the experiment, all participants were given choices between articles with dreary headlines and content (examples: “Drowning in Addiction,” “Rock Bottom and Sinking,” “The Violence of Suburbia”), and were asked to subjectively rate the unpleasantness of each piece. Searchers found these articles more unpleasant than surfers and also recorded greater cardiac acceleration (indicative of firmly encoding information in the brain) while reading.

It seems that even the trivial amount of preparation put in by the searchers before choosing an article paid off with the increased ability to concentrate, recollect and be emotionally impacted by the often maudlin article snippets.

Study lead author Kevin Wise of the University of Missouri suggested one commercial application: “Web site sponsors might consider increasing their advertising on pages that tend to be accessed via search engines.”

Practically, the research suggests, yet again, that the mental effort put in toward achieving a goal — whether scrounging around for an essay topic online or visualizing athletic success — clearly pays off in increased emotional and physical benefits.

Unfortunately, visualizing the return of the injured Pau Gasol to the Lakers lineup probably won’t work — that’s just wishful thinking.

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Erik Hayden
Former Miller-McCune Fellow Erik Hayden recently graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Religion. He regularly contributes for a variety of publications including the Ventura County Star and the alt-weekly, VCReporter.

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