Data shows a majority of internet surfers don’t read past the headlines. And the numbers aren’t negligible. Maksym Gabielkov and his team at Columbia University show that over 60% of readers will share an article without reading it.
You can read the study, a joint effort between Columbia University and The National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology, here
It’s easy to label people as lazy for choosing to not read past the headlines (trust me, I want to) or conclude that they are stupid. The latter also brings me enjoyment at my best of times. But science tells us there is more to this problem than we see on the surface.
First, the culprits are the desire to generate more views and traffic to content, especially with a financial incentive. Then there is the increasing urge to have social influence and reach. You could argue that these two are mutually inclusive, but the data tell us differently.
While readers’ biases affect how they share information, it’s the journalist’s intentions to manipulate those biases that perpetuate the problem.
Frequently, publications design headlines to trigger a reader’s need to click on a link and read the article they’ve shared. This design is a responsible business practice when considering the often expensive marketing behind social media and internet campaigns.
The issue becomes an ethical question when journalists or publications write their headlines to appeal to political or ideological stances.
Yes, I know that as you read this in the comfort of your solitude, two realisations are occurring to you: you understand why you have no friends and arrogantly think that you’re somehow immune to the psychology of headline writing.
But, the data show that you are not. Even the best of us are susceptible to psychological and emotional manipulation. Here is a study on the intrinsic link between personality and social processes.
Let me give you a personal example to illustrate that even someone as intelligent as me, with many more friends than you, can fall victim to their biases and not read past the headlines.
As I browsed my Twitter feed, I came across a post by The Atheist Republic titled Italian Catholic Priest Stole Church Money & Hosted Orgies. Believing I had found my new personal hero, I excitedly shared the link commending this man’s actions. Alas, I saw that this asshole is a vile coward. He traffics date-rape drugs and conceals his HIV-positive status from sexual partners.
My reaction to the headline resulted from trust in a source. I know this account to present information accurately. I also suffer from an adorable disposition to dislike the Catholic church for their historically heinous behaviour.
I’ll repeat it; we are all subject to psychological manipulation at one point or another—even the best of us, as seen in my example.
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In their article, Social Manipulation of Preference in the Human Brain, Keise Izuma and Ralph Adolphs of the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology, state the following.
“Our preferences are influenced by what other people like, but depend critically on how we feel about those people, a classical psychological effect called “cognitive balance.” Here, we manipulated preferences for goods by telling participants the preferences of strongly liked or disliked groups of other people. Participants’ preferences converged to those of the liked group, but diverged from the disliked group. Activation of dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) tracked the discrepancy between one’s own preference and its social ideal and was associated with subsequent preference change (toward the liked and away from the disliked group), even several months later. A follow-up study found overlapping activation in this same region of dmPFC with negative monetary outcomes, but no overlap with nearby activations induced by response conflict. A single social encounter can thus result in long-lasting preference change, a mechanism that recruits dmPFC and that may reflect the aversive nature of cognitive imbalance.”https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627313002705
To put that simply: you are likely to share material from a liked source despite its truth value.
Marketing companies know this, and you guessed it, they utilise it to manipulate your cognitive balance.
It’s unnecessary or even insufficient to deny the impact this of this knowledge on your natural biases. The only responsible course of action is to read past the headlines. I will also advise that you remain honest about your intent behind sharing an article after reading it. Lest, of course, you become guilty of spreading misinformation.
— The Devil Unbound