THIS ARTICLE WILL not restore your faith in humanity. Nor will it amaze, stun, delight, shock, charm, or in any literal or figurative way, blow your mind. What it will do—hopefully in a clear and intelligent way—is explain why people continually fall for clickbait. You know, like you just did a few seconds ago.
Whether you think it’s on the rise, obscurant and self-negating, not such a big deal, or the root of all evil, one thing is clear about clickbait: It’s increasingly hard to pin down. Some, like Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith, narrowly define it as an article that doesn’t deliver on its headline’s promise. Others think it means vapid listicles, quizzes, and Betteridge’s Law headlines. And then there are those who simply use it as shorthand for stuff they don’t like on the Internet.
Here’s what most people can agree on: Clickbait is annoying, but by god, it works—even when readers recognize it for what it is. The word’s substantial semantic drift may be behind some of this effectiveness. But a hefty helping of behavioral science is at play, too. As a number of new studies confirm, you can blame your clickbait habit on two things: the outsized role emotion plays in your intuitive judgements and daily choices, and your lazy brain.
Clickbait doesn’t just happen on its own. Editors write headlines in an effort to manipulate you—or at least grab your attention—and always have. “Headless Body In Topless Bar,” and “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” wouldn’t exist if publications didn’t care about attracting eyeballs. The difference with clickbait is you’re often aware of this manipulation, and yet helpless to resist it. It’s at once obvious in its bait-iness, and somehow still effective bait.
This has a lot to do with emotion and the role it plays in our daily decision-making processes, says Jonah Berger, who studies social influence and contagion at the University of Pennsylvania. Emotional arousal, or the degree of physical response you have to an emotion, is a key ingredient in clicking behaviors. Sadness and anger, for example, are negative emotions, but anger is much more potent. “It drives us, fires us up, and compels us to take action,” Berger says. If you’ve ever found yourself falling for outrage clickbait or spent time hate-reading and hate-watching something, you know what Berger is talking about. “Anger, anxiety, humor, excitement, inspiration, surprise—all of these are punchy emotions that clickbait headlines rely on,” he says.
A growing body of research supports this idea. In a recent paper called “Breaking the News: First Impressions Matter On Online News,” two researchers looked at 69,907 headlines produced by four international media outlets in 2014. After analyzing the sentiment polarity of these headlines (whether the primary emotion conveyed was positive, negative, or neutral), they found “an extreme sentiment score obtained the largest mean popularity.” This not only suggests that strongly negative or strongly positive news tends to attract more readers, they concluded, but also that “a headline has more chance to [receive clicks] if the sentiment expressed in its text is extreme, towards the positive or the negative side.”
Mind the Curiosity Gap
Promising a hilarious or mind-blowing experience using hyperbole and superlatives (even when the subject clearly doesn’t warrant such language) is one way to attract clicks. Another is to provoke curiosity. Upworthy articles are particularly good at this and psychologists have a few theories why.
One of the more popular and enduring ones comes from Carnegie Mellon’s George Loewenstein. In the mid-1990s, Loewenstein came up with what he called the “information-gap” theory. It basically holds that whenever we perceive a gap “between what we know and what we want to know,” that gap has emotional consequences. “Such information gaps produce the feeling of deprivation labeled curiosity,” he wrote. “The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation.”
In other words, not knowing is cognitively uncomfortable. Historically, this is the thinking behind Upworthy-style “what happens next” headlines: “Someone Gave Some Kids Some Scissors. Here’s What Happened Next” or “These Workers Just Want Money, And You Won’t Believe What They Did To Get Some.” You can make people even more curious, say social psychologists, by presenting them with something they know a little bit about, but not too much.
Numbers and Lists
Umberto Eco famously claimed that humans are drawn to lists because we’re afraid to die. Psychologists agree. Sort of. As many studies show, lists do a number of things extremely well from a cognitive standpoint, including helping us “face infinity and attempt to grasp the incomprehensible.” Here’s a brief list of reasons list headlines are so effective:
They often use numbers, and numbers stand out when we’re scrolling through an endless stream of headlines—particularly odd numbers.
Those numbers also help quantify story length and hint at the amount of attention (not much) we’ll need to deploy to read the story.
They organize information spatially, which is how our brains like information.
They feel good, existentially, because they eliminate (or at least downplay) the “paradox of choice,” presenting in its stead the illusion of certainty.
The takeaway here is that lists ultimately help create an easier reading (and thinking) experience. And there are few things your brain appreciates more than cognitive ease. As Kahneman writes, “easy is a sign that things are going well—no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or mobilize effort.” “The 15 Reasons Why You Can’t Resist List Headlines” promises a pre-defined endpoint and makes the world seem comprehensible. Lists banish mental heavy lifting, complexity, and ambiguity. Click.
Anticipation Is Making You Click
So clickbait employs a number of effective cognitive tricks to get clicks. Fine. But even if readers rely on emotion and cognitive ease when choosing headlines, that still doesn’t explain why clickbait continues to work. Fool-me-once logic should mean that their effectiveness goes down as exposure goes up. How many cheap emotional ploys, false promises, and empty listicles and quizzes can a person endure? A lot, it turns out.
Research has shown that humans are quite willing to put up with massive amounts of disappointment and frustration so long as there’s an occasional payout. And yes, sometimes clickbait does deliver these payouts … in spectacular fashion.
Consider the following headline: “These 9 Unlikely Animal BFFs Will Brighten Your Day and Melt Your Heart.” There are hundreds of variations of it online—many of them better from a clickbait POV—but you get the idea. We’re talking baby wombats hugging baby kangaroos, maybe some tiny snow leopard kittens playing with fox cubs, that sort of thing.
It’s well established that humans are pre-programmed cute seekers. To our brains’ pleasure centers, there’s little difference between looking at cute animals and consuming sugar or having sex. Indeed, the same neurotransmitter, dopamine, is involved in all three behaviors. That dopamine can manipulate our behavior isn’t news. But the chronology of this process is important when you’re trying to decode clickbait’s effectiveness.
Think of those nine adorable animal pics as a reward (your brain certainly does). Now think of that clickbait headline as a signal, an imminent sign you’re about to see some super-adorbz animal buddies. Lastly, think of the actual clicking of the link as the work you have to do to get that outcome. See headline, click hyperlink, receive super-cute reward. Easy.
You might assume our brains get that wonderful squirt of dopamine after we get the reward (the pics), but it turns out dopamine levels go up much sooner—when we see the signal. That effectively means the headline itself is what gave you pleasure—not for what it was, mind you, but for what it represented (impending cuteness in 3…2…1).
Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sopolsky summarizes the finding this way: “Dopamine is not about pleasure; it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself.”
Happiness in Slavery
What’s really interesting is what happens when you reduce the reward frequency. When it comes only 50 percent of the time, dopamine levels go through the roof. In this sense, a violated promise isn’t a deterrent for clicking behavior, but rather an incentive. As Sopolsky says, “you’ve just introduced the word ‘maybe’ into the equation, and maybe is addictive like nothing else out there.” Psychologists call this intermittent reinforcement, and it basically means that one of the most effective ways to get a specific behavior out of a person is to introduce “perhaps” into the equation.
Now obviously not all clickbait can—or even attempts to—manipulate our dopamine levels. But given its involvement in emotional arousal, it’s fair to say it does factor. This complicates the overpromise/underdeliver argument many people use to predict clickbait’s waning effectiveness. Indeed, on a rational level you may know that the adorable girl in this Clickhole video is right: you’ll still feel alone no matter how many videos you watch or how many lists you read. But behavioral science also suggests that reading about the 25 most awkward cat sleeping positions can also be an effective, if ever so brief, antidote to your existential isolation.