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Healthy or not? The impact of conflicting health-related information on attentional resources


Despite its ubiquity, little is known about the impact of exposure to conflicting health information on cognitive efficiency. We hypothesized that it would reduce attentional capacity, as evidenced by (1) increased response errors during the Attention Network Test (ANT), (2) decreased efficiency of each ANT system (alerting, orienting, execute control), and (3) increased self-reported workload, (4) nutritional confusion and (5) nutritional backlash. A sample of 184 online participants were assigned randomly to read an article containing either congruent or conflicting health information. Subsequently, they completed the ANT and self-report measures of workload, nutritional confusion, and backlash at nutritional recommendations and research. Participants in the conflicting health information condition made more errors, had overall slower reaction times, and reported greater workload, nutritional confusion, and backlash. No differences were found for individual ANT systems. These findings suggest that exposure to conflicting health information can degrade attentional mechanisms responsible for accurate and prompt responding to incoming information.

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Data availability

Data available on request from the corresponding author. Stimuli used in this study are provided in the Supplemental Materials.


  1. For ease of interpretation, means and standard deviations reported here are in untransformed units.


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The authors would like to thank Drs. Shana Cole and David A. Wilder for their thoughtful feedback during the development of this study.


The authors did not receive support from any organization for the submitted work.

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Authors and Affiliations



PVB and RJC contributed to the study formulation and design. PVB conducted the data collection and statistical analyses, contributed to the manuscript writing, and created figures. EJF contributed to the manuscript writing and created figures. RJC provided statistical and methodological oversight, and contributed to the manuscript writing. All authors contributed to the literature review and interpretation of the findings, and have read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Patrick V. Barnwell.

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Conflict of interest

The authors have no relevant financial or non-financial interests to disclose.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The study was approved by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey Institutional Review Board (No. Pro2019001164).

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Barnwell, P.V., Fedorenko, E.J. & Contrada, R.J. Healthy or not? The impact of conflicting health-related information on attentional resources. J Behav Med 45, 306–317 (2022).

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  • Conflict
  • Health-related information
  • Attentional capacity
  • Accuracy
  • Reaction time