Sunday, January 20, 2013

Amusing Titles in Psychological Science

I recently wrote a post about amusing article titles, pointing to  a tendency in the current psychological literature (and proposal as well in other fields) to blur the boundaries between scientific and popular scientific discourse. Here I want to discuss this trend in more detail.

I want to start by saying that I’m not immune to this trend myself. I managed to resist it until 2004 but more than half of my 2012 articles had “amusing” titles. In fact, my co-authors snuck two very similar titles up on me: Out of Sight out of Mind and Out of Mind out of Sight. I also had Spreading the Words and Language in the Balance. In my defense, I only was responsible for the last one.

In my previous post, I talked about the reasons for using amusing titles. The main one is the pressure to make your research relevant to a broader audience. But is it true that amusing titles are on the rise?

I take Psychological Science as my test case, examining amusing article titles published in that journal in the last decade. I have published in Psych Science myself (four articles and a fifth one in press) and think it has been a great addition to the field in many ways. There clearly was a need for short incisive articles. Psych Science was the first to fulfill that need and has quickly risen to prominence in the field.

At the same time, it is obvious that the journal has come under fire in recent years. I agree with some of the criticism. For example, when you see a single issue featuring the following titles, you can’t help but wonder what kind of image of psychological science (the field) we are creating.

Sticky Thoughts: Depression and Rumination Are Associated With Difficulties Manipulating Emotional Material in Working Memory
Knowing Your Own Mate Value: Sex-Specific Personality Effects on the Accuracy of Expected Mate Choices
Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis
Of Blood and Death: A Test of Dual-Existential Systems in the Context of Prosocial Intentions
Time Crawls: The Temporal Resolution of Infants’ Visual Attention
Power and Choice: Their Dynamic Interplay in Quenching the Thirst for Personal Control
Learning Words in Space and Time: Probing the Mechanisms Behind the Suspicious-Coincidence Effect
Who Took the “×” out of Expectancy-Value Theory?: A Psychological Mystery, a Substantive-Methodological Synergy, and a Cross-National Generalization
The Jekyll and Hyde of Emotional Intelligence: Emotion-Regulation Knowledge Facilitates Both Prosocial and Interpersonally Deviant Behavior

What do I mean by amusing article titles? 

I mean titles that are not directly descriptive of the theory, method, or findings. An example of a descriptive title is this.

Infants' Perception of Phrase Structure in Music

And here is an example of an amusing title.

Serial vs. Parallel Processing: Sometimes They Look Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee but They Can (and Should) Be Distinguished

A descriptive title just names the phenomenon, a theory, a model, the method, or the findings, something like The Effect of X on Y,  A Theory of Q, or A New Method for Assessing Z. An amusing title adds nondescriptive information to this or uses nondescriptive information exclusively. (By the way, these two titles are from the very first issue of Psych Science published in January 1990, so the journal was at it at an early age.)

I culled amusing titles from the 2003-2012 issues of Psych Science. It was not always easy to determine what was an amusing title and what not. For example, I initially false-alarmed to this one.

Chicks Like Consonant Music

It actually is descriptive. So it may be that others would come up with a slightly different set of titles than I did. I think the differences will be small though.

In this post I will share some qualitative observations (if you want the entire list of amusing titles, just contact me). In my next post, I will present some quantitative information and compare Psych Science to two other journals.

What types of amusing titles are there?

Alluring allusions

The authors refer to some literary work, or song—mostly songs, actually (I realize that some of these are also regular expressions, of course).

Don't Stand So Close to Me: The Effects of Self-Construal on Interpersonal Closeness
Running on Empty: Neural Signals for Self-Control Failure
Comfortably Numb: Desensitizing Effects of Violent Media on Helping Others
You Can't Always Get What You Want: Infants Understand Failed Goal-Directed Actions
Something in the Way She Sings: Enhanced Memory for Vocal Melodies

But there are also movies:

Scent of a Woman: Men’s Testosterone Responses to Olfactory Ovulation Cues
Apocalypse Soon?: Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs

And, yes, literary allusions:

Peace and War: Trajectories of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms Before, During, and After Military Deployment in Afghanistan
For Whom the Mind Wanders, and When: An Experience-Sampling Study of Working Memory and Executive Control in Daily Life
How Can I Connect With Thee?: Let Me Count the Ways
How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words: The Social Effects of Expressive Writing
Who Shalt Not Kill? Individual Differences in Working Memory Capacity, Executive Control, and Moral Judgment
The Jekyll and Hyde of Emotional Intelligence: Emotion-Regulation Knowledge Facilitates Both Prosocial and Interpersonally Deviant Behavior
Local Jekyll and Global Hyde: The Dual Identity of Face Identification

And allusions to linguistic theory:

Colorless Green Ideas (Can) Prime Furiously

As well as odd political allusions:

Misconceptions of Memory: The Scooter Libby Effect

But some managed to resist the alluring power of allusion:

Distraction and Placebo: Two Separate Routes to Pain Control
Two Forms of Spatial Imagery: Neuroimaging Evidence

Kudos to the authors for not sneaking  “A Tale of Two” in there.

Proverbial titles

Some titles use (variations on) common expressions, slang, and proverbs.

Read My Lips: Asymmetries in the Visual Expression and Perception of Speech Revealed Through the McGurk Effect
Why the Sunny Side Is Up: Associations Between Affect and Vertical Position
Falling on Sensitive Ears: Constraints on Bilingual Lexical Activation
Connecting the Dots Within: Creative Performance and Identity Integration
Discovering That the Shoe Fits: The Self-Validating Role of Stereotypes
The Left Hand Doesn't Know What the Right Hand Is Doing: The Disruptive Effects of Attention to the Hands in Skilled Typewriting

Stimulus packaging

Some titles are intended to create initial puzzlement (WTF?) by elevating one of the stimulus items from the experiment(s) to titular status.

On Wildebeests and Humans: The Preferential Detection of Negative Stimuli
Cherry Pit Primes Brad Pitt: Homophone Priming Effects on Young and Older Adults' Production of Proper Names
Head Up, Foot Down: Object Words Orient Attention to the Objects' Typical Location
Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller: Posture-Modulated Estimation

Always alliteration

In my previous post on this topic, I mentioned that amusing titles are representative of the poetic function of language. Nowhere is this more obvious than in alliteration.

Animals and Androids: Implicit Associations Between Social Categories and Nonhumans
Connections From Kafka: Exposure to Meaning Threats Improves Implicit Learning of an Artificial Grammar
Of Snakes and Succor: Learning Secure Attachment Associations With Novel Faces via Negative Stimulus Pairings
Company, Country, Connections: Counterfactual Origins Increase Organizational Commitment, Patriotism, and Social Investment
Facing Freeze: Social Threat Induces Bodily Freeze in Humans
Border Bias: The Belief That State Borders Can Protect Against Disasters
Tough and Tender: Embodied Categorization of Gender
Etiquette and Effort: Holding Doors for Others
Money and Mimicry: When Being Mimicked Makes People Feel Threatened
Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories
The Cost of Collaboration: Why Joint Decision Making Exacerbates Rejection of Outside Information
The Cost of Callousness: Regulating Compassion Influences the Moral Self-Concept (
The Herding Hormone: Oxytocin Stimulates In-Group Conformity

Why use amusing titles?

These are the most common categories. I think they all serve the same set of causally connected purposes: (1) attract attention to themselves (the poetic function that I talked about in my previous post), (2) therefore be memorable, (3) therefore become a sound bite for the popular and social media, (4) therefore appeal to the general public, and (5) therefore show university administrators and politicians that our work is relevant to the world.

Who are the perpetrators?

Pretty much everyone. I have already turned myself in. Perpetrators include a self-acknowledged fraudster like Diederik Stapel.

The Secret Life of Emotions [retracted]
Emotion Elicitor or Emotion Messenger?: Subliminal Priming Reveals Two Faces of Facial Expressions [retracted]

(Obviously “[retracted]” was not part of the original titles.) But they also include those who are very vocal about the current state of the field and are proposing reforms. For example, Hal Pashler committed:

Measuring the Crowd Within: Probabilistic Representations Within Individuals

And Joseph Simmons, co-author of the well-known article (in Psych Science) on false-positive psychology is guilty of:

Believe It or Not: On the Possibility of Suspending Belief
Moniker Maladies: When Names Sabotage Success

And last but not least, even Nobel Prize winners are in on the act. Daniel Kahneman wrote:

Zeroing in on the Dark Side of the American Dream: A Closer Look at the Negative Consequences of the Goal for Financial Success

Leave it to a Nobel Prize winner to come up with a title with three amusing components!

More in my next post.


  1. Hi Rolf, I wanted to offer a different perspective on funny titles, but mostly I just want clarify what you're saying, exactly.

    First, on the broader communication of science. I agree there are pressures that may lead people to take shortcuts to producing popular articles. I actually don't think funny titles are high on that list, but more on that in a moment. I think it's also important to make the case that we should be doing far more to communicate science to a popular audience. There are obviously good and bad ways to do this, but I don't necessarily believe we should be drawing a bright line between science communication and popular communication. Certainly if makes things more accessible doesn't harm the scientific content. So I wanted to clarify your position, because I'm not sure I understand it correctly, regarding communicating science to a broad audience.

    On titles specifically, I think the first thing to note is that not many people outside academia read the titles of articles. Even if they did, they couldn't read the articles themselves because they're, unfortunately, behind paywalls. So it doesn't seem to me that getting popular attention is a major factor in funny titles. It may make a journalist more likely to give it a second look, but probably not much more than that.

    My guess is that the audience is much more within academia, and it's not clear to me that there's anything wrong with self-promoting in this way, unless you're really debasing the science in some meaningful way -- but we have a long history of funny titles in the field and I don't think they've done much damage. It just adds a little levity, even though when the field goes through identity crises maybe that's not the best face to show to the world?

  2. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your insightful comment. My concern is that the popular and the scientific get conflated in some of these journals. I think researchers should be doing two things: (1) write report-like scientific papers and (2) provide more entertaining and easier-to-digest versions of the research in the form of blogs (which are not behind paywalls) or popular articles. This is where levity can roam free (pardon my mixing of metaphors).

    Scientific papers are part of the scientific record and frivolity should be kept to a minimum. After all a behemoth/warhorse is a serious beast (see my earlier post

  3. The horrifying thing to me about these titles is that they all contain a colon. How boring!

  4. There is at least on paper this topic: The emergence of the colon: An empirical correlate of scholarship.
    By Dillon, J. T. American Psychologist, Vol 36(8), Aug 1981, 879-884.