Misleading headlines do work

A new paper reports experimental evidence which shows that misleading headlines do exactly what they set out to do. They direct the reader to take away a conclusion that is not – or not entirely – supported by the content of an article. They are not false but they do succeed in leaving the reader with a “desired” conclusion.

Ecker, Ullrich K. H., Lewandowsky, Stephan, Chang, Ee Pin and Pillai Rekha, The Effects of Subtle Misinformation in News Headlines, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Oct 27 , 2014, No Pagination Specified. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xap0000028
Abstract:Information presented in news articles can be misleading without being blatantly false. Experiment 1 examined the effects of misleading headlines that emphasize secondary content rather than the article’s primary gist. We investigated how headlines affect readers’ processing of factual news articles and opinion pieces, using both direct memory measures and more indirect reasoning measures. Experiment 2 examined an even more subtle type of misdirection. We presented articles featuring a facial image of one of the protagonists, and examined whether the headline and opening paragraph of an article affected the impressions formed of that face even when the person referred to in the headline was not the person portrayed. We demonstrate that misleading headlines affect readers’ memory, their inferential reasoning and behavioral intentions, as well as the impressions people form of faces. On a theoretical level, we argue that these effects arise not only because headlines constrain further information processing, biasing readers toward a specific interpretation, but also because readers struggle to update their memory in order to correct initial misconceptions. Practical implications for news consumers and media literacy are discussed.
Of course that’s why the headline writer has the last word. And it applies not only to articles but also to lectures and presentations and speeches. Unless the reader (or listener or viewer) returns to the subject and goes through his own thought process, the conclusions presented by the headline, or summary or “take-aways” on a Power Point slide are what remain in the subject’s memory. Provided, of course, that the take-away is not blatantly false. Subtly misleading is – in my experience – far more effective than anything blatantly misleading or just plain wrong.
In this information-rich age, we rely increasingly on surfing headlines and have not the time – or the inclination or the knowledge – to rethink every conclusion we are led to. It becomes easy to have an opinion about anything – even things we know very little about. I would suggest that in the world of instant polls and election advertising the impact of misdirection and the misleading headline is magnified. We tend to believe the misleading headline and “act” – especially where the action is as simple and as painless as to click a “like” button or even to cast a vote. I am quite convinced that when an instant poll follows a web article the response will be in favour of the headline.
The conclusions from this study are not unexpected or counter-intuitive in any way but it is nice to see experimental evidence in support.
FastCompany reports:
The researchers ran two experiments with multiple components, but let’s focus on the part of their study most relevant to the Ebola headline problem. In one test, Ecker and colleagues asked participants to read several short articles. Some of these articles had slightly misleading headlines. Others had headlines that were broadly accurate in the context of the entire article. Take one test article about the safety of consuming genetically modified food. The article quotes a scientific consortium backed by a national science academy as saying that the safety of such food “has been confirmed by many peer-reviewed studies world-wide.” In an attempt to seem balanced, the article also quotes an organic-food advocate (and presumed opponent of GM foods) saying that the long-term health impacts of genetically modified food “remain undetermined.”Some test participants read this article below a fairly accurate (if terribly bland) headline: “GM foods are safe.” Others read it below a headline that wasn’t blatantly wrong but remained slightly misleading or imbalanced: “GM foods may pose long-term health risks.” After reading the articles, test participants answered questions meant to gauge the influence the story might have left on their thoughts or potential behaviors. 

The study results betray the subtle power of misleading headlines. Test participants who read articles with accurate (or “congruent”) headlines tended to rely more on the content of the article itself when answering questions than those who saw misleading (or “incongruent”) headlines. In the case of the genetically modified food, participants who read misleading headlines appeared more concerned with its safety than those who saw a congruent headline–showing a greater willingness to pay extra for non-GM foods, for one thing. This gap in perception occurred despite the fact that both groups read the same exact article in full. The headline had left its mental mark.

Ecker and colleagues believe the big problem with misleading headlines is that they’re just that–misleading, as opposed to downright wrong. Correcting misinformation requires a lot of mental work. People are perfectly capable of doing that work once they recognize the need, but in the case of misleading headlines, that need isn’t always clear. After all, the misleading headline about genetically modified food is true in a very strict sense: the foods may possess long-term health risks, in the same way the world may end tomorrow. As the researchers put it, misleading headlines may have served to nudge behavior “without readers noticing their slant.”

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