Yes-no questions in headlines

I recently came across a reference to Betteridge’s Law. Not having heard of this before, I looked it up on the web. As Wikipedia explains, Betteridge’s Law of Headlines says the following: ‘Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.’

Ian Betteridge, a technology journalist, explained that journalists use such a headline if ‘they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it’.’s_law_of_headlines

It seems the reason for this inference is as follows. If the writer were confident that the answer was ‘yes’, they would assert that answer rather than merely asking a question. So, by asking a question, they invite the inference that they weren’t confident enough to make the assertion. Thus, readers infer that the answer will be ‘no’.

As stated, Betteridge’s law may go too far. If the writer is not confident enough to make an assertion (rather than just ask a question), it would also be reasonable to expect the answer to be ‘the writer doesn’t know’.

Also, although the quotation abve doesn’t say this, Betteridge’s Law applies only to one type of question: questions that can be answered ‘yes or ‘no’ (or ‘don’t know’).

Digression on self-reference

While reading about Betteridge’s law, I came across a confusing use of the word ‘self-referencing’. A paper on the use of questions in advertising found evidence that people are more likely to click on an online headline if it contains a question—and are even more likely to click if the headline also contains ‘self-referencing cues’.

The paper was What makes you click? The effect of question headlines on readership in computer-mediated communication, Linda Lai, Audun Farbrot (Social Influence, volume 9, issue 4, 2014) What makes you click? The effect of question headlines on readership in computer-mediated communication (

Lai and Farbrot give the following examples:

  • ‘Why are advertisers so obsessed with winning prices?’ (question headline without self-referencing cues)
  • ‘Is your boss intoxicated by power?’ (question headline with self-referencing cues).

Lai and Farbrot add that ‘empirical studies indicate that self-referencing enhances the persuasive effects of advertising , and the use of self-referencing second-person pronouns (e.g., “you” and “your”) in marketing communication generates perceptions that the messages communicated are more personally relevant, and the products presented more personally useful, compared to when third-person pronouns’. [references omitted]

It appears that ‘self-referencing’ in this context is intended to mean ‘referring to the reader’. This use of ‘self-referencing’ seems very odd. I would expect it to mean ‘referring to the writer’ (or to the headline), not ‘referring to the reader’.

An established use in psychology?

This use of ‘self-referencing’ may, though, be well established in psychology circles. Many of the references cited by Lair and Farbrot have titles containing the words ‘self-referencing’ or ‘self-referent’.

And the site says ‘The self-reference effect refers to people’s tendency to better remember information when that information has been linked to the self than when it has not been linked to the self. … According to the self-reference effect, … people are … more likely to remember the words if they thought about them in relation to the self (Does the word describe them?) than if they thought about them without reference to the self (Is the word long?).’

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: