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'Searched' web info hits harder than 'surfed' - shock

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Journalism academics have published a study asserting that people are more likely to "understand, remember and emotionally respond" to web news and information which they have searched for than stuff they have "surfed".

In this case, "surfing" means looking at content selected for the user by others, as when going to a news site or links section and clicking on the offerings there.

"How readers acquire messages online has ramifications for their cognitive and emotional response to those messages," says Kevin Wise, who is assistant professor at the department of the bleedin' obvious strategic communication at the University of Missouri. "Messages that meet readers' existing informational needs elicit stronger emotional reactions," adds the prof.

The study involved monitoring participants' heart rate, skin conductance and facial muscles to gauge their emotional responses to "unpleasant news". It turned out that their responses were significantly stronger when looking at content which they had searched for rather than having it presented to them. Similarly, quizzes found that information was better recalled and understood when acquired actively.

The study, The Effect of Searching Versus Surfing on Cognitive and Emotional Responses to Online News, can be read here by subscribers to the Journal of Media Psychology.

"If, as these data suggest, the cognitive and emotional impact of online content is greatest when acquired by searching, then Web site sponsors might consider increasing their advertising on pages that tend to be accessed via search engines," says Wise.

Wise words. ®

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