How to Avoid Critical Thinking Errors Caused by Media HeadlinesErrors

How to Avoid Critical Thinking Errors Caused by Media Headlines

January 21, 2021

How you make sense of the information you read online has a direct effect on your life and your job. Most knowledge workers and managers spend a significant portion of their day searching and gathering information. McKinsey suggests this could amount to 19% of their day or almost two hours every day. Searching for and making sense of online information is part of many people’s jobs today.

Beyond information consumed for the explicit purpose of completing a work assignment, online information consumption shapes people’s perspectives and worldviews, which affect how they perceive their work, employer, and key decisions made by their employer.

As it becomes more important, it is also becoming more difficult to make sense of online information. We described 8 critical thinking fallacies in social media that make sense-making more difficult. You need robust critical thinking skills in order to do so effectively.

The First Problem with Media Headlines

Headlines are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to information consumption. As such, they carry disproportionate importance relative to their length. A key challenge is that many draw conclusions based on headlines alone. According to a 2016 study, an estimated 59% of articles shared on Twitter had not been clicked. This is a problem even if headlines were written primarily to describe the article’s contents. It’s even more problematic when you consider that many headlines are written primarily to attract clicks.

For example, a study of the press coverage of the 2004 Canadian federal elections found “a considerable difference between articles and their headlines in terms of emphasis and issue salience,” such that “voters who scanned headlines were supplied with a different set of heuristic cues than those paying closer attention.” Headlines often misrepresent their articles.

How Media Headlines Affect Information Interpretation

Is the answer to this problem simply to encourage people to read whole articles? That is part of the answer – which Twitter has tried. However, reading the article doesn’t fully correct for problematic headlines. Misleading headlines interfere with your retention and interpretation of the rest of the article in three notable ways:

  • Headlines lead you to process information relevant to the headline more so than other information
  • Headlines bias your interpretation toward conclusions consistent with the headline
  • Headlines imprint your memories, making it challenging to update your memory in order to correct initial misconceptions even if the article corrects the misconception

The research establishing these effects was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2014. It summarizes the effect this way: “misleading headlines affect readers’ memory, their inferential reasoning and behavioral intentions, as well as the impressions people form of faces.” Your actions are influenced by headlines.

“With the right—or, rather, wrong—headline, reading the article may not be enough,” says a New Yorker article summarizing the work of Ullrich Ecker, a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Western Australia. If the headlines are inaccurate or misleading, so will your interpretations be.

How to Avoid Being Misled by Media Headlines

If headlines irreparably affect our reading of articles, what can we do? The answer may well be nothing if headlines are inaccurate and misleading in random and unpredictable ways. And they are some portion of the time. But writers and publishers also use consistent strategies to grab your attention at the cost of being accurate. Here are 4 to watch for:

Singularity Abuse

The singularity abuse is when a headline suggests that one factor is responsible for an outcome when it’s clear that many factors affect the outcome. Here is an example from an otherwise fascinating article in BBC’s psychology section:

Does the ‘paradox mindset’ contribute to success? The research cited in the article suggests it does. But is this mindset the only driver of success? Certainly not.

By suggesting that the paradox mindset is the singular driver of success the headline increases your interest. In a world where many factors lead to success, learning about another one is only moderately interesting at most. You don’t know how much that factor will contribute to success. You may be content with the other factors you already know. By making this mindset the singular driver of success, it challenges your existing knowledge, suggesting that this important, while the other factors you have grown to believe are important are not.

Interestingly, the article doesn’t attempt to make the case that other factors conventionally thought to affect success do not affect success. The singularity abuse in the headline is not an assertion of the author, but a writing maneuver designed to increase readership.

You can see both how this abuse is deceptive and how it is subtle. This abuse is achieved through the use of one article over another: “the” instead of “a.” If the headline had read, “Why the ‘paradox mindset’ is a key to success,” it would be completely accurate.

Consider this recent article found on Inc. Can you find the singularity abuse here?

You may have pointed to the “10 Best New Business Books.” You’re right to identify that phrase as an abuse, but it’s not an example of the Singularity Abuse. See the Superlative Abuse below.

This article promises not just a guide of the 10 best books, but your “complete” guide. It’s hard to know what complete means in this context. Does it mean that the list contains 10 books as it promises? While that is what it suggests literally, that would make no sense. It would add nothing. Instead, the author/publisher uses the word “complete” to convey singularity. You need no other business books this year. Just look at this list.

Generalization Abuse

The Generalization Abuse cuts the other way. Rather than suggesting that the one item in question is the only one necessary, the generalization abuse suggests that something relevant to a specific group or situation is in fact relevant to a much broader group.

The most common example of this abuse is the suggestion that the actions of a single or small group of celebrities will help all people become successful.

This headline is less misleading than others because it doesn’t state that those 8 morning habits will make you successful. It just implies it. However, you only have to get to the summary of the article to find this implication make explicit:

The successful may be brilliant in intellect and endurance, but their daily routines consist of activities we can all do to better ourselves and win the day. 

It isn’t that these 8 morning habits are not useful. Here’s the problem with the Generalization Abuse:

  • We don’t know that these 8 morning habits caused the celebrities’ success. Maybe they are successful in spite of these habits. Or maybe they are successful only because of the combination of these habits and another 2-3. Or maybe only 1 of these habits drives success and the other 7 don’t matter.
  • Secondly, even if you could prove these eight habits caused the success of these celebrities, you still wouldn’t know if they would cause your success. You are different than these celebrities. Your context is very different. This is why academic studies seek out a representative sample so they can assert that the results achieved by the study participants are relevant to you (or the populations they are claiming they are relevant to).

This isn’t to say that we can never learn from celebrities or anecdotes. But we would be wise to avoid assuming that what they do will produce the same results for us.

Celebrity reports aren’t the only examples of the Generalization Abuse. Here are some other forms it can take:

Does every founder have the same challenges? Even less likely: Is every founder’s most difficult challenge the same? Clearly no. Does the article make this argument? Not really. But it uses this headline to broaden the appeal.

Here’s a similar example:

The sub-heading is right. This is an unprecedented time with an exceptional number of significant stressors. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. But is everyone’s mental health suffering? No.

And the article doesn’t claim that everyone’s mental health is suffering. In fact, the closest it comes to asserting a claim on this front is to suggest that roughly half of people’s mental health is suffering:

survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation in July 2020 found that 53 percent of adults said the pandemic had a negative toll on their mental health. Data collected from the CDC found that 41 percent of adults experienced symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder in December 2020, compared to 11 percent in January-July of 2019.

(Emphasis added)

Presumptive Abuse

The Presumptive Abuse happens when the headline presumes something is true that it doesn’t argue in the article. Consider this article in Fast Company:

The authors don’t know how you think Americans are feeling this winter. It doesn’t know how all of its readers think Americans are feeling. Yet, the headline presumes that you and all of its readers think Americans are feeling relatively poor this winter. Does the article make the case that people think Americans are not feeling well this winter? No. This is the most it offers:

With so much bad news swirling around—COVID-19, politics, racial injustice—you’d think Americans would be throwing up their arms and gobbling down ice cream.

But maybe this abuse is harmless? Does it really matter that the headline makes an unsupported assertion?

It matters because priming occurs. Priming is a “technique in which the introduction of one stimulus influences how people respond to a subsequent stimulus.” It “occurs without our conscious awareness,” “by activating an association or representation in memory just before another stimulus or task is introduced.”

Because of the way the headline is worded, you are more likely to receive any news shared in the article as good news.

Unrelated: While we did not do this intentionally, the irony of placing this headline directly after a headline with almost the exact opposite message is not lost on us. But that is the topic for another article.

Here’s another, perhaps more innocuous, example:

What’s the presumption here?

Exploding barrels make video games “so much more fun.” This may well be true, but the article doesn’t really argue that they do, aside from noting that they are present in a number of popular games (watch out for the correlation = causation fallacy there).

From the looks of this Reddit thread, it appears that a good number of gamers may agree that they do, at least, except for this one:

Superlative Abuse

The Superlative Abuse may be the most rampant of these headline maneuvers. It involves the claim that the subject in question is the greatest, most creative, most corrupt, [insert your favorite adjective]. In a world the size of earth with 7.7 billion people, it’s hard to justify any claim that something is the blank-est. As a result, any superlative is typically on flimsy logical ground.

We showed you this one earlier as an example of the Singularity Abuse:

What makes these the “10 best” business books of 2020? It’s hard to say from the article.

But maybe this is ok. Maybe we accept that this is simply the author’s opinion and nothing more?

Unfortunately, we would argue that we can and should do better. This article in the same publication shows us how.

From this headline, in contrast, we can tell how this list is compiled and evaluate its merit. It’s Amazon’s list.

Unfortunately, you could probably find hundreds of examples of the former, including this one hot off the press:

How did the authors arrive at these 10 as the “best inauguration performances of all time”? No idea.

Beyond not sharing their approach to picking these 10, there is a near-zero chance this could truly capture the best performances of “all time” because the earliest performance on this list is from 1985. If you’re wondering if inaugurations contained performances before Reagan’s second term, yes, they did.

To their credit, the authors do soften the claim in the article:

To mark the historic event, we take a look back at some of the best inauguration performances of the past four decades.

It just happens to be 4 paragraphs into the article. By that point – for those who make it that far and don’t skip over it to the list – the headline has likely already wielded its power.

Spotting Misleading Media Headlines

In the same way that many assume our memories are perfect records of our experiences and the information we consume, many assume that our sense-making of information is a purely objective process. Unfortunately, this is not true. Even the slightest adjustments to just a single component of an article – the headline – can have a significant effect on how you make sense of the entire piece.

We have come to grips with our systemic irrationality when it comes to decision-making, recognizing and looking out for the now well-known list of decision-making biases. We need to do the same when reading headlines. Allow these 4 abuses – singularity, generalization, presumptive, and superlative – to color the “lens” you use to consume information.

These 4 surely aren’t the only abuses either. Even as we share these 4, we’re working to identify the next set for you. If you have identified any misleading patterns in headlines, please let us know.

Avoid underestimating the power of these short phrases to alter first your understanding and then your actions.

Notes & Explanations:

  • We do not share the article images and links to the articles to shame them. The point, instead, was to show you how widespread these abuses are in the media.
  • Our examination of headlines and review of the research on how profoundly media headlines alter our understanding of content has caused us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves if any of our headlines are currently guilty of these abuses. We are in that process now. Feel free to call us out if you see a headline that strikes you as misleading.