One Amazing Reason Clickbait Can Be Bad For You!
A new study demonstrates how headlines can alter how you perceive the content of news articles.
We've known for a while that most people don't tend to read online news articles the whole way through. Even in eye-tracking studies looking at how people read articles when compelled to sit in a laboratory (with no distractions and nothing better to do), many don't even bother sticking around until the end:
Now a new study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology has demonstrated how even in the eventuality that you do read an article all the way through, a deceptive headline can impact the lessons you take away from what you read. With the move away from physical publications to digital publishing and a news cycle dominated by social media shares, “clickbait" headlines have become commonplace. All too often, especially when it comes to science news, we see headlines that are directly contradicted later on in an article — a phenomenon once dubbed by Dr. Ben Goldacre as “the caveat in paragraph number 19" after an article about a diet that supposedly cut breast cancer by 40 percent didn't mention that the study wasn't actually even about breast cancer until paragraph 19:
(An article titled) “Strict diet two days a week 'cuts risk of breast cancer by 40 per cent'" is a good example. It goes on: “a strict diet for two days a week consisting solely of vegetables, fruit, milk and a mug of Bovril could prevent breast cancer, scientists say."
Now, obviously, if you have the time to track down the academic paper which this news article is describing, from the October edition of the International Journal of Obesity, you will immediately discover that it is not a study of breast cancer, and it does not find that the risk of cancer is reduced by 40 percent (although it does measure a couple of hormones). The press release wasn't exactly a masterpiece of clarity either, as CRUK's excellent science blog immediately pointed out, but in any case, the study doesn't measure breast cancer as an outcome, at all.
But if I was to leave it there, then the journalist would correctly complain: because after all the grand and misleading claims, firstly, in the body of the piece, they do mention that the outcome is not cancer, but some hormones related to cancer (with no explanation of how tenuous that relationship is). Then, finally, at the very bottom of the piece, they have the reality. Although it's not spoken in the authoritative third person of the paper itself, it's there, in a quote, at paragraph number 19.
A more recent example of this is the following headline from the Daily Express which neglects to mention the whopper of a caveat that it refers to the leading “environmental" cause of lung cancer:
The Daily Express article even quotes a researcher explicitly stating that: "Although air pollution increases the risk of developing lung cancer by a small amount, other things have a much bigger effect on our risk, particularly smoking", yet as is so often the case, the utterly misleading headline is allowed to remain. Until now, we might have been forgiven for thinking that the only people affected by such questionable journalistic practices were those who don't read the whole article, but we now have reason to believe that the situation is worse still.
The Danger of False Balance
Back to the recently published study, researchers created articles using the common but controversial practice of false balance – providing equal airtime to opposing views from sources with very different levels of credibility. The researchers headed the articles with opposing headlines such as “GM Foods may Pose Long-term Health Risks" versus “GM foods are Safe". The body of the articles were both the same and included a statement from a reliable source, for example:
In a recent statement issued by a consortium of over a dozen international science academies, including the Australian Academy of Science, it was explained, "GM products have been used for many years and have been consumed without any substantiated evidence of ill effects on health. There is no logical reason they should be of any health concern, and their safety has been confirmed by many peer reviewed studies world-wide."
This was contrasted with a statement from a (fictional) unreliable source, such as:
Irene Michaels from Organic Food Science Australia says the GM argument cannot be justified, as all of the claims about higher yield and longer shelf life have not been proven. “GM crops may have slightly increased levels of nutrients and vitamins but in order to do that, scientists have to interfere with the plants' complex metabolic pathway. This technology can't deliver on its promises as it is still unknown whether the genetically mutated food is safe to eat, as long-term health impacts remain undetermined."
The headlines influenced the readers thoughts about the content of the article – in this case - genetically modified foods. Similarly, participants were swayed by the headlines “Fears of Fluoride in Drinking Water" versus “Fluoride Beneficial in Drinking Water". In this example a fictional “Robert Paul from the Wanneroo Citizens' Association" was pitched against “Many major health organizations including the Australian Dental Association" citing “50 years of legitimate peer-reviewed research". In these cases, despite the fact that the content of the articles never actually changed, participants allowed themselves to be swayed by the headline alone.
The findings suggest writers and editors need to take seriously their responsibility not only in citing reliable and credible sources, but also in choosing a headline that accurately represents the truth – rather than a headline that will get the most clicks. Similarly, readers need to be aware that headlines have an impact on how they perceive articles they read; in an age where profits are determined by clicks, accurately portraying the truth may not be at the forefront of an editor's mind when deciding how to phrase a headline.
Related Reading: When Evidence Backfires
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Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.
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