Thinking someone is a jerk does not make them a jerk

Binghamton University published a press release last December 8 summarizing the results of a study where, according to lead researcher Celia Klin, 126 undergraduates on average saw “text messages that ended with a period as less sincere than text messages that did not end with a period”. Klin added that these results demonstrate that “punctuation influences the perceived meaning of text messages.”

So it’s clear that the phenomenon under study was how people perceive text messages, the key word being “perceive”. We are looking at what people think about something, independent of that something’s actual state.

This press release was of sufficient interest to news outlets that many ran the story. However, while some outlets pretty much just summarized the press release, others decided to overreach a little bit and distort the study’s scope.

The Washington Post felt like being glib with this gem: “Researchers, led by Binghamton University’s Celia Klin, report that text messages ending with a period are perceived as being less sincere, probably because the people sending them are heartless [emphasis mine].” I don’t need to remind you that in no way does the study even attempt to make a judgment about the personality or motivations of people who actually do send out text messages that end with a period.

NYMag, showing their mastery of how to provoke comment outrage and increase page views and social media shares (a.k.a. clickbait), go further by entitling their article, “Study Proves Only Jerks End Their Texts With a Period.” No, study ‘proves’ (as far as you can prove something with 126 undergrads) that texts that end with a period are on average perceived as insincere. Whether or not people’s intuition about what your SMS punctuation says about you is correct is completely outside the scope of the study.

On the other hand, CNBC is much more charitable (or just has better reading comprehension), framing their article as advice: “Are you using punctuation when you text? You may be sending the wrong message.” Time and the Wall Street Journal took a similar tack. The Metro, not known for genteel language, nevertheless gets the study right: “Study confirms that everyone thinks you’re a dick if you text with full stops.” Mashable, where entire research teams are devoted to thinking about which animals other than cats are most likely to create viral videos*, gets it right too.

As an aside, this story probably became so popular not just because of its fairly light subject matter, but also because it seems to confirm what most of us have suspected for a long time already. I still freak out when I get a text that ends with a period, but because I’m insecure, I don’t perceive it as insincerity or jerkitude; I perceive it as the other person being angry at me.

*They thought the answer would be otters, but they were wrong.

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