An empathetic approach to support your ideas

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So imagine this: you are a college student and you are required, for one of your courses, to participate in a departmental research study. You go online to see the options and you see that there are two studies available.

On this site, intended for students wishing to enroll in research studies, the titles of the two studies are as follows:

Title A: Interpersonal factors related to social coalitions: A multifactorial approach to understanding socio-emotional relationships.

Title B: How do people choose their friends?

Remember that you should only participate in one study. And according to the website, each of these studies takes about 25 minutes to complete.

I don’t know about you, but I’d be much more likely to choose the study with title B—How do people choose their friends? It just seems more interesting and accessible, right?

So now, let’s change perspective: you have an established doctorate. in behavioral science and you were recently appointed editor of a major international academic journal. Your journal receives about 500 submissions for review each year, but you can only publish 50 articles per year. So your journal is bound to have a 90% rejection rate.

As a publisher, you often have to weed out submitted articles for articles very effectively. Sometimes you even have a habit of making quick decisions based on the professionalism of the newspaper title.

One day, on your desk, you receive two manuscripts that you are asked to consider for publication. Their titles are, you guessed it, as follows:

Title A: Interpersonal factors related to social coalitions: A multifactorial approach to understanding socio-emotional relationships.

Title B: How do people choose their friends?

It’s a different situation from the previous one, isn’t it? While this second title seemed stylish enough to catch the attention of 19-year-olds looking for a fun study to participate in, this first title is much more scientific and detailed. All things being equal, if I were the editor in this case and could only consider one of these articles based on title alone, I could imagine being biased in favor of title A.

Each project has multiple versions of the title

A quick conclusion from the thought experiment described above is this: Virtually every project (in every field, by the way) has different titles that are suitable for different audiences. If you look at the titles above, for example, it could very well be that these two very different titles correspond to the exact same study.

When working with students on research projects, I always find that getting them to understand the issue of creating titles that best connect with various particular audiences is an essential communication skill.

To really break down this idea, let’s expand on the example shown at the top of this article. Imagine you are conducting a study that focuses on how various emotional factors relate to how people choose friends and other coalition allies. As with all studies, this work is likely to be presented to a variety of audiences in a wide range of contexts. For example, you will need a title indicating how the study will be presented to the local ethics committee on your campus. You will also need a title that will be presented to potential attendees. Additionally, you might need a title that matches a presentation about this work you will be doing at an academic research symposium. Perhaps you will try to publish this work in an academic journal. Perhaps you will try to publish this work as a chapter in an edited academic book. Perhaps you will try to write a popular book about this work. Maybe you’ll even venture to write a Psychology Today article about work! And then, of course, there’s the informal name of the study that you and your research collaborators use for work in the midst of data collection.

It is important to note that each of these places has its own unique function and corresponding unique audience.

As an exposition of how to think about this issue in practice, below are examples of titles for this project that might be appropriate for the various locations shown above.

Ethics committee title: A scientific study of the psychology of friendships

Title for potential participants: How do people choose their friends?

Title of a research symposium, academic journal article, or academic book chapter: Interpersonal factors linked to social coalitions: a multifactorial approach to understanding socio-emotional relationships.

popular book title: How to make friends!

psychology today: how people do Really To make friends?

Informal name of the study among members of the study team: The study of friends

As you can see, the “right” headline is highly dependent on context and audience.


Nailing down your job title is important for a variety of reasons. First, getting the right headline for a particular audience and context helps you grab people’s attention and helps you communicate your ideas better. No student wants to be in a boring old study with the term “Multifactorial Approach” in the title, just as no editor of a serious scientific journal wants to bother considering a paper called “The Friend Study” for publication in the magazine highly competitive pages. The ability to develop and use titles suitable for all audiences will help anyone better communicate their ideas to others.

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