Headlines, cognitive processing, and problematic information

A series of headlines full of misinformation from a variety of news organizations.

Headlines matter. Publishers know it. Good headlines help with the understanding, reach, and impact of a story.

Headlines frame articles, shaping the information in the article that follows, and alter reader comprehension. Headlines can induce positive priming effects in readers.1

Headlines are efficient at doing this.

They play a significant role in readers’ memories, inferential reasoning, and general impressions. Headlines activate prior knowledge, constrain information processing, creating influence towards a given interpretation, or narrative.2 3 4

A bad headline, functions in exactly the same way. 5 6 7

An incorrect or misleading headline can be more important and long-lasting than the information in the article. Even when an article contradicts the headline, readers suffer from the continued-influence effect of misinformation. 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

The framing and priming effects of headlines are a kind of order of information problem. Order matters. 15 16

Repetition, or familiarity, also has a powerful misinformation effect. So much so that if we’re not careful, even debunking efforts can result in reinforcing falsehoods. Every exposure matters.17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24

Journalists often distance themselves from the impact of headlines, citing the need for folks to read the article, or simply claiming they didn’t write the headline. But headlines are everyone’s problem. And we need to hold publishers, and authors, accountable.25

  1. And even though many journalists distance themselves from headlines, good headlines are celebrated, and headlines routinely become part of journalists’ CVs.
  2. Lexicon of lies: Terms for Problematic Information. “A conspiracy theory could now go from fringe speculation to the headlines of network news within weeks. And even if the mainstream news was reporting on it in shock or disgust, it still led millions of viewers and readers to be exposed to these ideas.” Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online (PDF)
  3. For background on the psychology of priming check out this article on A/B testing your headlines.
  4. A headline can also induce stereotypes and implicit bias. For a backgrounder on implicit bias check out Scientific American, and also Neiman Reports.
  5. Ecker, U. K. H., Lewandowsky, S., Chang, E. P., & Pillai, R. (2014). The effects of subtle misinformation in news headlinesJournal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(4), 323-335. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000028
  6. “The effects of headlines and summaries on news comprehension and recall”, León, J.A. Reading and Writing (1997) 9: 85. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1007928221187, Springer.
  7. See also George Lakoff, “How You Help Trump” and in The Guardian, “Trump has turned words into weapons. And he’s winning the linguistic war”.
  8. “Correcting false information in memory: Manipulating the strength of misinformation encoding and its retraction,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
  9. Ullrich K. H. Ecker (2017) Why rebuttals may not work: the psychology of misinformation, Media Asia, 44:2, 7987, DOI: 10.1080/01296612.2017.1384145
  10. See “Knowledge does not protect against illusary truth” PDF – Fazio, Lisa & Brashier, Nadia & Payne, B & Marsh, Elizabeth. (2015). Knowledge Does Not Protect Against Illusory Truth. Journal of experimental psychology. General. 144. 10.1037/xge0000098.
  11. Cook, J. , Ecker, U. and Lewandowsky, S. (2015). Misinformation and How to Correct It. In Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences (eds R. A. Scott and S. M. Kosslyn). doi:10.1002/9781118900772.etrds0222 (PDF)
  12. Fighting Fakes – The Nordic Way. https://doi.org/10.6027/ANP2018-756
  13. Research by the Ecker Memory & Cognition Lab.
  14. Humans are really good at being misled: “Our brains are wired to assume things we believe originated from a credible source” (Neiman Lab).
  15. And many editors have competing interests which tend to the sensational, and other narrative interests of the organization. See for example the prevalence of phrases like “tax burden” in headlines. However, in “Incongruent Headlines: Yet Another Way to Mislead Your Readers” the authors argue that incongruent headlines are importantly different from clickbait and sensationalism. (PDF)
  16. “This headline is trying to manipulate you, and it’s working” Smithsonian Magazine.
  17. “Exposure Increases the Believability of Unbelievable News Headlines via Elaborate Cognitive Processing,” Journal of Media Psychology.
  18. Think of it as vectors of contagion if that helps. Repetition, done wrong, is a kind of amplification and it can also give legitimacy to false narratives. For more on this see The Oxygen of Manipulation (PDF).
  19. Nice summary on media manipulation by Alan Yuhas, “Smoke and mirrors: how Trump manipulates the media and opponents”.
  20. See also this nice summary from the University of Pennsylvania.
  21. This is a nice review of the Truth Sandwich method by NPR.
  22. George Lakoff from with the Frame Lab – on Soundcloud.
  23. From Dan Gillmor, 2018, “Dear Journalists, Stop Being Loudspeakers for Liars”.
  24. See this research for some mitigating effects of repetition: Ecker, Ullrich & Hogan, Joshua & Lewandowsky, Stephan. (2017). Reminders and Repetition of Misinformation: Helping or Hindering Its Retraction? Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. 10.1016/j.jarmac.2017.01.014.
  25. “How the Media Helped Legitimize Extremism,” Wired.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top