This Is Why (most) People Only Read The Headlines (Scary Study Finds)

Did you know that of 10 people who read a headline, only 2 will read the rest of the content?

And in truth, that number could be lower since most of us won’t admit to just being headline-gazers.

Guilty as charged? 

Well, thanks for even reading this far past the headline.

According to a study conducted by Columbia University computer scientists, 59% of links shared online have never actually been clicked.

Which begs the question, why do most of us assume that we have the whole truth from a headline even when we know there are so many misleading headlines out there?

Isn’t an article’s body supposed to be the essential part?

Let’s first understand why we stop short on content.

Why Do People Only Read Headlines?

1.    Shortening Attention Spans

Eight seconds. 

Experts suspect that the digital information era has dropped a human’s attention span from 12 seconds in 2000 to just eight seconds today.

This all-time low figure is even less than your average pet goldfish’s attention span (which, for the record, it’s nine seconds).

So, how does a human’s shortening attention span contribute to our likelihood of not reading past the headline?

  • Information Overload

Too much content available online has impacted the modern-day content consumer’s attention span significantly.

It feels much harder to stay focused on a single news context, in this ever-connected world of social media and high-speed internet access.

While instant access to a wealth of content from various sources is a good thing, our diminishing attention span has affected our desire for an in-depth analysis of the information we get.

Plus, our longing for “instant gratification” and “quick fixes” has caused us to lose the little patience we had to read content past the headline.

This is a bit concerning, as mass amounts of people are forming opinions based on only sensationalized headlines and partial information.

  • The Internet Has Altered Our Brains

Our brain’s digitalized lifestyle, and our high internet usage have impacted our brain structure.

It now seems that the attention time in human’s collective brains cannot keep up with the sheer amount of news updates and social media content competing for our attention.

How can our brains deal with the endless pop-ups, notifications, e-mails, ect.

This has forced us to train ourselves to have divided attention and shorted focusing ability.

With our desire for instant gratification, we’ve adapted to short spans of focusing (within eight seconds) and moving to the next thing.

For this reason, it is unsurprising that publishers, editors, and journalists need to grab our attention while we still have it by carefully designing their headlines.

Here’s a related article I wrote on why you probably are already addicted to the internet (and how to tell)

2.    Confirmation Bias

Another reason why people always feel the need to share articles even before they read the whole of it is because, sometimes, the headline proclaims something they already believe. 

Confirmation bias, which is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their already existing beliefs, gives people the confidence to share an article with someone with a similar opinion.

This is dangerous!

This trend of “sharing” without confirming the truth in a piece of news creates a cycle of reinforced falsehood among like-minded people.

Unfortunately, such people are usually less likely to change their minds even after the accurate information counters their pre-existing prejudice!

The Science Behind Writing Headlines

People know what they want to know, and media knows this too well.

Headline writers are incentivized by “selling” the story. And the best way to sell (ask any used car salesman) is by leveraging emotion.

The more dramatic, gut wrenching, or shocking a headlines is, the better.

The term used for the best headlines is sensationalism. Unfortunately sensationalism and truth, usually clash.

Sensationalism: How Headlines Make Us Feel

Truth be said, headlines will always be a part of the magical allure of a news piece.

A headline is what attracts “passersby.”

It forms the basis for casual social discussions and conversations among everyone that reads them. 

Headlines are written to evoke either positive or negative emotions. the more extreme the better.

There’s a sub-conscious element in how humans process news.

A headline affects our moods, vibes, and emotions, dictating how we approach and become entranced into following a piece of news. 

Good headlines are meant to evoke a feeling that can draw us deeper into the article.

Content writers, editors, and newsrooms know this very well. That’s why they riddle almost every headline, both in print and online, with sensationalism.

The Oxford Dictionary defines sensationalism, especially in journalism, as “the presentation of stories in a  that is intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy.”

Essentially, sensationalism is an editorial bias that mass media practice to overhype news topics and events. This often manipulates the truth in the stories, which contradicts the standards of professional journalism.

Mass media often apply sensationalism to pry on our sense of perception.

They design headlines in a way that is appealing to any reader’s emotions, motivating our “eyeball” action.

You can always “feel” sensationalism in a media organization’s choice of words, language, exaggerated facts, or using exciting or shocking language for people to find individual stories exciting. 

Prying on our emotions helps them to garner reads, clicks, and viewership. 

The more the reads, clicks, and viewership a certain content gets, the more traffic a news source gets, and the more their revenue. 

The Business of How Headlines Pay

There has always been the economics of attention in this business of news storytelling.

Headlines are at the center of this, acting as “bait” for drawing in readers.

News sites are supported by advertisers.

(For more on how News Channels make money here’s another article that i wrote that’s pretty fascinating)

Have you noticed that there are advertisements on every news site?

The more clicks a news article gets, the more traffic to the website.

The more traffic to the website the more people see the advertisements.

The more people see the advertisements, the more money the advertisers will pay to advertise on the news website.

News is a business like any other. It needs to sustain itself financially.

For this reason, journalists ensure that they write “clickbait” headlines to boost traffic (which is profitable),  increasing revenue in return. 

The “sweeter” or the more shocking and controversial the headline is, the greater the trigger for news consumers—and the more the number of clicks.

That’s how clickbait headlines work.

It’s not that these news organizations set out to be sensationalists. It’s just that their business models lead them in that direction.

Of course, this trend favors newsrooms. However, the fact that we rarely fact-check or read more past the headline has birthed many “fake news” websites and other news organizations.

Such online news sources compete for attention by using sensational headlines and controversial storylines because it is what’s most likely to make you check the article out in the first place.

Where Are Most People Reading News Headlines

It was only 10-15 years ago that most news media was consumed on television on in the paper. But with the expansion of technology, smart phones, and the new digital age, news and headline reading have changed rapidly.

1. Reading Headlines On The Internet

The internet is the collective consciousness of the world and that means there’s lots of perspectives.

If you look deep enough you can find headlines on the same story that sell completely different angles.

This can be a good thing if you know what to look for.

but if you’re only reading you r news from a single source, then iInternet headlines become more dangerous.

This shouldn’t be surprising. We all know there is more than one side to every story, yet millions of us stick to one news network.

Most Americans prefer to visit their favorite news websites directly, and do not read from multiple sources as one might expect in order to gain a deeper understanding from multiple perspectives.

2. Reading Headlines on Social Media

We have so much information at our fingertips today, with social media being our news manager.

In fact, nearly 64.5 percent of the over 2.4 billion internet users receive their every news from Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Snapchat, making social media the primary source of info online.

While focusing on only the lead sentence is nothing new (we have been doing so even with traditional media), it is more prevalent in social media, especially Twitter and Facebook.

Perhaps, it’s due to how fast the mass amounts of information come to us at an age when we are busier than ever before.

I mean, when most of us land on a story, either on Twitter or Facebook, we rarely make it down to the body. A lot of us don’t even make it midway.  

What makes it even more dispiriting is the relationship between sharing and scrolling and how casual these social media sites are.

We tend to tweet out links and click the share button to articles instantly after only reading the headline.

Unfortunately, this trend has become among social media’s defining characteristics. It has also created the greatest digital falsehoods.

This is because content publishers and journalists can easily manipulate their readers, whether intentionally or not. “Clickbait headlines” have somewhat diminished the value of news.

Today, journalists and publishers put more emphasis on creating the starkest and wittiest “eye-catching” lead sentence for adverts or click-baiting.

While it’s a business model for them, it dumbs down good stories, misleading masses, making social media news very unreliable.


Of course, a headline determines how many people will read a whole article. But, content writers, editors, publishers, and journalists have rethought this approach altogether.

They no longer insist on giving readers extensive information or the truth. Instead, they now focus on crafting an appealing headline that’s clickable by as many internet users as possible.

Even if that means using confirmation bias to split the population into different segments.

This means one thing—the only way to truly understand what’s going on in a news article is if we take the time to read the content for ourselves.

If you enjoyed this article, please don’t hesitate to share on your social media accounts. It would really help us to spread more value and help us to reach a larger audience.

Also, check out some of our other articles on “”Consciousness“” , “”Ancient Wisdom“” , “”Self-Awareness“” , and “”Mindsets“”

Thanks for reading !

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