If you’re anything like me, you would have likely heard of conflicting stories which tend to confuse.
Typically a headline like; “Coffee is Good for You” and a couple of weeks later we get a headline like this; “Coffee is Bad for You.”
This leaves me at least, in something of a dilemma, is coffee the saviour drink or will I end up struck down with caffieneitus?
Or what about this headline “Blood Pressure Medication Reduces Death by 50%” (more on this at the end of this article)
The media are in the business of selling news. Many if not most of their stories come from press releases. A journalist may not have the time nor the inclination to check things themselves. The press release gets rewritten and is placed as a story. They may simply trust the source of the story because it’s from an expert! More on this another time.
Now, something I learned in marketing a long time ago related to the power of a headline. Direct marketers have always known about the power of headlines to gain attention.
They engage in something called a split test. This is where segments of their target market are broken up. They then create two different headlines but leave everything else the same. They then send out the promotion with each segment seeing their particular headline which is split 50% 50%.
Direct marketers will then measure the response rate to see which headline brought the best outcome. In case you’re wondering a change of headline can make a huge difference in response rates. Perhaps as high as 1200% or 12 times better or worse response.
Perhaps you’ve known all along that the media can sometimes mislead you but there’s something else you may not be aware of.
Humans without realising it will rely on the first or initial piece of information to make judgements. It creates an anchor in their mind. This is best seen when we are out shopping. A shop will create a higher price and then offer the item for sale.
This is one of the reasons why we always tend to see furniture sales. It’s because they are always on sale otherwise they wouldn’t sell as many products.
Anchoring works with headlines we see as well as with sale prices. We get suckered in by a clever headline and then read the article which is written to strengthen the main and often missleading point or headline.
There are other things at play here as well. For example, we tend to obey, trust or listen to authority figures.
Obedience to authority starts when we are very young, parents, teachers, doctors…politicians!
In a way it’s perfectly natural to trust the overall message because if we didn’t we would end up going bonkers in analysing every decision we make.
Humans are designed to make quick decisions even though it sometimes gets us into trouble. I suggest you have a read of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel K
Is there a way to use the thinking part of our brain in such a way as to help make better more informed decisions? Are we able to see through the misleading headlines and reach independent conclusions?
I’m not sure whether there’s a completely fail-safe way in which to understand when you should pay attention. There are though some strategies which might help steer all of us in the right direction.
I quite naturally have a tendency to challenge the status quo and ask questions. It’s as normal for yours truly to ask questions as it is to get up every morning and do some exercises. Habits can be good or bad, the trick is to replace bad habits with good habits. By the way, whilst I stated I have a natural tendency to challenge the status quo and to ask questions, that doesn’t mean I wont ever be mislead. I have been mislead in the past and it will probably happen again.
What can be done then?
One of my most helpful learned life lessons is this “Structures Drive Behaviour,” if you understands the underlying structure you will understand why people do what they do. There are occasions when this lesson is helpful and there are occasions when it isn’t.
When it’s not helpful
If your immediate survival is threatened, then don’t apply this type of thinking because you might get eaten, run over or something worse! Thinking about underlying structures is a slow type of thought process, it is very helpful but not in this situation.
Our brains evolved and rewarded those of us who could spot immediate danger and do something about it. Running out of the way of a raging Lion or a bus bearing down on you is a normal thing to do and will likely help your future survival.
When it’s helpful
I tend to see the world through a prism of interconnected systems and structures and naturally apply a little thought to start with whenever I see or hear any headline or snippet. I’m especially on the lookout for big bold statements simply because big bold statements need big bold evidence. A piece of news might grab my attention but will tend to look at the underlying agenda or structure.
One of the biggest drivers of behavior is economic, another structure is reputation or kudos.
So much of our medical research is funded by private companies I now no longer routinely trust anything medical, especially if pharmaceuticals are involved.
I happen to think we have a tendency to believe much of what’s written because thinking is actually quite hard. It’s simply easier to just go with the flow and not challenge anything. The problem with this is that we can get hoodwinked, we can get lied to, we can end up believing something is true when it fact it’s a myth.
Here’s a headline I just invented (actually I didn’t, it came out of a book I’ve been reading).
“Blood Pressure Medication Reduces Death by 50%”
It’s the kind of thing we might see in our tabloid press or on the television but what does it mean exactly?
It means we have some questions to ask before we take the bait and start on our new blood pressure medication.
I would suggest a good starting question might look like this; Is the 50% mentioned, an absolute or relative risk figure?
What’s the difference between absolute and relative I hear you ask?
This is taken from one of the books I recommend;
If 1000 people start taking blood pressure medication and 1000 do not. At the end a year, 1 person taking medication has died, and 2 people not taking the medication have died.
The absolute difference in deaths is 1 person per 1000 or .1%
The relative difference is 1 vs. 2 (i/2 = 50%)
Typically a company and a newspaper headline will use the relative figure of 50% but… they will often omit that it the figure was relative. And this assumes people reading the news will understand the difference between absolute and relative.
Most people won’t understand the difference and this is just one way we are manipulated by headlines.
If you want to get down and dirty, I’ve a couple of easy to read books to suggest, which are below;
I’ve got both of these books in my collection, they are easy to read and informative.