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Poorly Chosen Headlines Can Hurt Your Memory

Experiments show people remember the main points less when a headline emphasizes something else.
Hot headlines. (Photo: stevenritzer/Flickr)

Hot headlines. (Photo: stevenritzer/Flickr)

The surprising thing about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq wasn't that they never turned up. It was that vast numbers of Americans continued to believe there were WMDs over there long after Bush administration officials acknowledged there weren't. Psychologists and political scientists sort of expected that—it doesn't take much to sway your beliefs about the news, really, and attempts to correct inaccurate beliefs can actually backfire. But could a carelessly (or nefariously) placed headline be enough to mess with your memory of the facts in a news story? It can, according to a new study.

"The present research suggests that misleading headlines affect readers' memory for news articles."

Building on past research on the spread and persistence of manifestly false beliefs, Ullrich Ecker and collaborators at the University of Western Australia wondered whether misleading, though not exactly incorrect, information might have a similar impact on outright falsehoods. In the first of two experiments, 51 UWA undergraduates read fake news stories concerning natural disaster-related deaths or burglaries. In both cases, students read there was a slight, short-term uptick but a more substantial long-term decline in the rates overall. Half the students saw an accompanying headline that emphasized the main point ("Downward Trend in Burglary Rate," for example) while the other half read a somewhat misleading headline ("Number of Burglaries Going Up"). After reading those stories, the students got a pop quiz on what they'd read, and those who'd read the misleading headline scored 12 percent worse—they scored 46 percent on average, compared to 58 percent for those who'd read a more congruent headline.

Those results extended beyond the facts to students' impressions of the people in them. In the second experiment, Ecker and team showed 47 more students made-up news reports of a crime, such as a financial scam. This time, a photo of one of the players—a victim, a culprit, or a prosecutor, for example—accompanied the story. The headline and the article's first paragraph likewise referred to one of those people, though not necessarily the same one. When the researchers later asked students how positively they felt about the people depicted in the photos, they did generally favor the "good guys," such as the victim or prosecutor. Still, the headline had an effect. When headlines focused on the perpetrators, for example, students rated pictures of victims and others on the side of justice more negatively than otherwise.

"There can be little doubt that misleading headlines result in misconceptions in readers who do not read beyond the headlines," the authors write in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. "The present research suggests that misleading headlines affect readers' memory for news articles." In part, they argue, that's because the facts of the story will always be interpreted in the context of what's already been read—namely, the headline. In addition, readers may not be watching out for incongruities and therefore do nothing to correct for them. This may explain another of the researchers' findings: When the team replaced news stories with opinion pieces, headlines had no effect on memory.