This study shows how the internet is ruining our reading habits

Shutterstock

“Like” and “downvote” options attached to online articles and news pieces are intended to create a more interactive reading experience, but a new study finds these features usually lead to less time spent actually reading the article.

Researchers from Ohio State University have found that people spend roughly 7% less time reading an online article if that particular piece includes an upvote/downvote or like/dislike option. This is especially true regarding articles that already agree with one’s preconceived views or beliefs.

Why is this happening? In a nutshell, these features are changing the very premise of content consumption. When we read an article with no feedback options, it’s simply to learn something new or interesting. As soon as a like/dislike button gets added to the equation, the entire topic becomes personal. It’s not so much about the article anymore, but our thoughts and opinions.

“When people are voting whether they like or dislike an article, they’re expressing themselves. They are focused on their own thoughts and less on the content in the article,” explains study leader Daniel Sude, who conducted this research while earning a doctoral degree in communication at The Ohio State University, in a release. “It is like the old phrase, ‘If you’re talking, you’re not listening.’ People were talking back to the articles without listening to what they had to say.”

These feedback options also appear to entrench people further in their beliefs, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if everyone was reading the articles, but that isn’t the case. Researchers noticed that people’s views on controversial or political topics tended to become stronger after they liked an article that agreed with their views. The only problem is that in many of these instances the person hadn’t read the full article they liked.

Forget about anything political or controversial for a moment. Let’s say you love nachos (who doesn’t?), and see an article titled “Nachos saved my life” pop up on your Twitter feed. Naturally, your first instinct is to like the tweet. For the rest of the day, you can’t stop thinking about how great nachos are; after all they saved someone’s life!

Of course, since you never actually read the article, you have no idea what it really said. In a way, though, it doesn’t matter. Just seeing that headline and clicking the like button validated and strengthened your already conceived belief that nachos are awesome.

“Just having the ability to like an article you agreed with was enough to amplify your attitude,” says study co-author Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, professor of communication at Ohio State. “You didn’t need to read the article carefully, you didn’t have to learn anything new, but you are more committed to what you already believed.”

An experiment involving 235 college students was conducted to reach these conclusions. To start, each participant was asked their opinion on four political topics. Then, each student was shown four distinct versions of the same fictional news website (each version covered one of the four political subjects).

Now, each of those websites showed headlines and the first paragraphs of four articles (two with a more conservative slant & two with more liberal wording). Across all of these versions, participants could always click on a headline to read the full article. However, two website versions didn’t allow any feedback (likes, dislikes), while the other two invited readers to click either an upward or downward-facing arrow button to convey agreement or disapproval of what they just read.

As each student was browsing all four website versions, the research team kept track of how long participants spent reading each article, as well as whether or not they used the like/dislike options (when available).

Students always spent more time reading articles that gelled with their political views (1.5 minutes) in comparison to stories they disagreed with (less than one minute). But, participants also spent 12 seconds less reading articles they agreed with if they were able to cast a like/dislike vote.

In addition to all that, participants used the like/dislike feature on 12% of the articles they never even clicked on to read.

Participants were also followed up with to see if reading any of the articles changed their beliefs. Predictably, in the absence of a like/dislike feature, reading an article they agreed with led to stronger convictions among participants. When students could use a like button, they didn’t even have to read an article for it to strengthen their beliefs – just upvoting was enough to do that.

“It is important that people’s views still became stronger by just having the opportunity to vote, Knobloch-Westerwick adds. “When they had the opportunity to vote on the articles, their attitudes were getting more extreme with limited or no input from the articles themselves. They were in an echo chamber of one.”

Considering the fact these buttons only exist in the first place to encourage more people to read articles and then express their opinion, these findings suggest such feedback options may be doing much more harm than good.

So, the next time you see a tweet or headline you think is worthy of a “like,” try to find a few minutes to read the entire article before lending your virtual support.

The full study can be found here, published in Computers in Human Behavior.