Paradoxes Increase Memorability

If you've ever wondered why some academic research makes its way into the headlines of mainstream news media, while others languish in obscurity, consider the role played by paradox in the research. Associate Professor Yellowlees Douglas noticed that the Editor's Summary for articles in the journal Nature foregrounded explicit paradoxes, even when the articles themselves made no mention of a paradoxical relationship in the research. These paradoxes included the inverse relationship between the commonness of a condition and how little researchers knew about it, long-held assumptions overturned, medications used to treat a condition that, instead, exacerbate it, poorer health outcomes despite significant improvements in diagnosis and treatment, and that innovations receive the most rapid uptake when they make evolutionary tweaks—not revolutionary changes—to existing technologies, even when the technological status quo is widely perceived as inadequate. So she set out to study the phenomenon and its impact on students' recall of academic research, translated for the news media.

The study used an article, "Mechanical comparison of barefoot and shod running," published in International Journal of Sports Medicine, translated into a brief news story. The story's opening two paragraphs existed in three different forms: one with an explicit paradox in the first sentences of the opening paragraph ("the more expensive your running shoes, the more likely you are to get injured"), one with only an implicit paradox (running shoes may be less good for your feet than running barefoot), and one with no paradox at all (some people run ultramarathons barefoot). All three versions of the story had the same readability scores using Lexile, Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid, and 19 measures of syntactic complexity to ensure that each version presented identical challenges to readers. Readers answered a single, multiple-choice question about the passage's meaning immediately after reading and then 3-5 days later with no re-exposure to the news story.

Surprisingly, 91% of respondents correctly identified the gist of the research with the paradox-explicit passage immediately after reading the article, and 55% of respondents remembered the story's meaning correctly as many as five days later. In contrast, only 14% of respondents with the paradox-implicit passage identified the meaning of the study immediately after reading, with only 8% recalling its meaning correctly 3-5 days later. Tellingly, despite the same number of students receiving the no-paradox survey as the other two groups (110), only 4% of students could make sufficient sense of even a mainstream news version of the academic study to respond to the questions on either Day 0 or Days 3-5.

Relatively few studies have examined the relationship between surprise or incongruity and memory, although scholars have suggested both that paradox represents a highly unexpected version of incongruity. In turn, incongruity seems to activate neural circuits that otherwise remain dormant when conditions follow our expectations. These neural circuits direct extra attention and trigger more processing of a paradox, which, in turn, creates stronger memories of the news story or research. For academics seeking to inform the public conversation and awareness of everything from personal finance to the workings of the stock market to health and nutrition, using explicit paradoxes in reporting research can lead to stronger coverage in the news media. Professor Douglas' research, "Do Paradoxes Prompt Better Attention and Recall?" appears in the May 2017 issue of The International Journal of Business Administration.


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