Why Do We Click On Clickbait?
The Internet is full of people who want to tell how you should to write article titles:
The Internet is also full of clickbait titles that make you want to click, creating a vast vortex of wasted time.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
Don’t you just want to click “Read More,” and end up hating yourself two hours later for clicking on every freaking article published on that website over the past four months?
It’s pretty laughable really — the enigmatic magnetism of these clickbait titles. Our curiosity is so insatiable, and our resolve so frail that we lurch uncontrollably into a clickfest when we see titles like what you just read above.
I loved the ckcd.com piece that profiled the 20th century headlines rewritten in true clickbait form:
We face an overwhelming amount of clickbait titles and flat-out annoying ways of information propagation. It’s almost as if solid, reputable, and yes, boring, information will be completely overlooked by the Internet’s sordid hordes rushing to read the next salacious titillating Buzzfeed clickbait.
Thankfully, I haven’t stopped writing research-backed, information-rich, intellectually rewarding content. It’s not even remotely salacious. That’s because I understand a little bit about how the mind works. And I know that the loyal readers who will read my articles on, say, CrazyEgg, Entrepreneur, Kissmetrics or other reputable sites will understand the value of what they are searching and finding.
This article is an attempt to convey a few principles on how the mind is functioning when it takes in articles titles — whether these titles are on Viral Nova or Harvard Business Review.
I use some big words (not really), discuss some advanced concepts, and explore some detailed issues — but I think it’s worth it.
Your Mind Reading an Article
Reading anything will prompt brain activity.
When your mind actively reads anything, it correlates with increased activity in the left temporal cortex. The stimulation in the left temporal cortex lingers for a long time. A title that grabs your attention is actually creating real brain activity.
Anything you look at, read, or process is going to cause brain activity.
A study by Kutas and Hillyard made the observation, “neuroelectric activity of the human brain … accompanies linguistic processing.” The neuroelectric activity is higher when subjects are subjected to “words that completed meaningful sentences.”
The greater the familiarity of the reading material, the higher the neuroelectric activity, and the greater the process “of semantic priming or activation.”
That’s our starting point. Pretty simple so far.
Reading things that correlate closely with interest objectives provides more semantic congruity.
Sorry, I know this is a mouthful of a declaration, but allow me to expand on it.
Whenever you read something, your mind is anticipating the next word, phrase, or thought. This happens on a macroscopic scale and a microscopic scale.
On a macroscopic scale, it happens when you read something like David Copperfield. English author Charles Dickens, in this bildungsroman, shares with the reader the life of young David, and over the course of hundreds of pages you anticipate what’s going to happen next in his life. This is anticipation. You are looking for something that will be congruous with your expectation.
On a microscopic scale, it happens in something as short as a title. You read the first word, and in the split second that follows, your mind is already preparing and predicting the next word. You can do this quite effectively, especially if the semantic phrase is a familiar one:
- Happily ever _____
- Once upon a _____
- Mary had a little _____
And you can probably come up with words to fill in these blanks, without going to too much effort:
- I’m going to go to the ___
- I want another ___
- I’m going for a drive in the ___
- I’m going to read a ____
(Most likely answers: store, cookie, car, book.)
In these short phrases, your mind is functioning to anticipate what is going to come next. You are predicting the outcome.
You are pursuing semantic congruity.
Your mind likes predictability. When the predictability and semantic congruity of a title leaves you with cognitive curiosity, however, the results are predictable. But I’m getting ahead of myself …
Your mind compares things that it reads in a title with other information that it already knows.
Here’s how it works. You read a title, and it has words like “Apple,” “iPhone” and “Steve Jobs,”
You already have a cognitive construct for each of those terms. In fact, you have an iPhone in your pocket, and you may have recently read a biography of Steve Jobs. You instinctively relate those cognitive understandings to the title.
The greater the amount of cognitive transport — i.e., the amount of information that you have “stored” in each of the “buckets” (words) in the title, the greater your ability to relate to that title.
For example, you may read the following title, and your brain automatically imports preexisting information into each of the word buckets:
Apple CEO Announces Release of a New iPhone with All the Features that Steve Jobs Requested Just before His Death
(I totally made up that headline, so please don’t search for it.)
You know something about Apple, iPhones, smart phone features, Steve Jobs, and death. Thus, your brain is actively correlating and trying to organize what you already know, and also trying to determine what you don’t know.
An article title like the following, however, may not have as much appeal, simply because you may not have as much stored knowledge on each of the words.
Functional Specialization for Semantic and Phonological Processing in the Left Inferior Prefrontal Cortex
That, by the way, is a real article title. But you’re probably not going to see it on Buzzfeed. It just doesn’t have the same appeal as “23 Pictures That Prove Glasses Make Guys Look Obscenely Hot.” I dare you not to click on that article.
When a title has words or ideas that relate to things you already know, your mind has a stronger consonance with it, making it more cognitively appealing. It stands out mentally.
Also, if you have recently read or learned something on that subject, the title has stronger resonance. The brain stays active long after it takes in the knowledge acquired by reading (called “shadow activity”). The stronger the shadow activity in the brain, the more it will be affected by other things that the brain takes in.
One corollary of this principle is something I call “cognitive cross pollination.” Cross pollination is the way that one plant’s pollen gets transferred to another plant’s stigma. In reading or taking in information, the same thing happens. Your knowledge of one thing deepens, expands, or augments your knowledge of another thing.
This is one of the reasons that certain educational models intentionally pair learning about an era of history with reading literature that was written during the same time period. If you’re learning about 18th century English history and the reign of George III while reading and studying Jane Eyre, you’ll probably learn both better.
So, that’s what happens when you read an article title. Your mind’s powerful index starts going over all the other facts, figures, faces and features that it already knows, pairs them with the information in the article, and gets some synaptic action going.
And that — that “synaptic action” — is what I want to talk about next.
Article Techniques that Effectively Engage Your Mind
First, let’s do some review
1. Reading anything will prompt brain activity.
2. Reading things that correlate closely with interest objectives provides more semantic congruity.
3. Your mind compares things that it reads in a title with other information that it already knows.
You have a mashup of things going on in your mind when you encounter an article title. When it comes right down to it, though, what are those psychological triggers that compel you to click or read?
There is a single underlying motivating factor that causes people to click on an article title. In one word, it’s resolution.
The Resolution Principle
Effective titles make people think. We discussed that. But then those effective titles also create a lingering sense of unresolved tension — a need not met, a scratch that needs itching, a curiosity that needs satisfying.
People click on articles because the title provides just enough information to call for a resolution.
As humans, we are constantly looking for a state of cognitive equilibrium. Jean Piaget of child psychology fame was instrumental in developing the theory that humans face disequilibrium when they cannot fit new information into their existing schemas. This temporary phase of disequilibrium is overcome through the process of equilibration — the force that drives learning and discovery.
This is the same basic principle that skillful authors use when they craft a great novel. They introduce drama and keep the suspense high. People in a state of suspension are looking for resolution. What goes up — suspension — must come down. It’s the law of gravity, and it’s the same for a person’s thinking process.
Article titles aren’t novels, but they pack the same sense of cognitive disequilibrium into the space of just a few words. The result is the same. We want resolution.
Our minds are not content with the imbalance of disequilibrium — the lingering sense of incompleteness that we feel after reading a successful article title. So, we click. We pursue equilibration.
Practical Manifestations of the Resolution Principle to Clickbait Titles
Let’s take this a step further and find out how this works in different types of article titles.
Note: Article titles provided below are fictional. Any resemblance to titles living or dead is purely coincidental, or a result of some awesome telepathic powers of which I am heretofore unaware.
The curiosity bucket is a big one. Virtually every article title with any human appeal has some element of curiosity. Publications like SFGlobe have created dozens of titles with high levels of curiosity. No, their content isn’t unique and, yes, their titles are clickbait. But, hey, at least they have curiosity going for them!
Curiosity hits us when we feel like we have to find out what happened.
- Man Stands On His Head for Ninety-two Days. You’ll Never Believe What Came out of His Nose When He Stood Upright Again!
- OMG! This Viral Kitten Video Made Me Cry! Wait Until You Get to the Third Hour of It!
- 18 Houses That Will BLOW YOUR MIND! Number Seventeen Was SO GROSS!
Curiosity doesn’t have to be that egregious. It can take tamer forms.
The idea though is that such titles make us wonder. What the heck could be so gross about a house? What about the dude with stuff coming out of his nose?
The desire for resolution makes us click.
One of the most popular ways of titling articles is with a number:
- 72 Ways to Organize Your Desk
- 18 Different Ways to Make a Million Dollars in One Year or Less
- 15 Things You Need to Know about Paris Hilton’s Personal Life
Our minds enjoy the organized sense that numbers provide, even if we hate math. Numbers, however, are mental constructs that stand for something. They need to be filled with meaning. So we think …
- 72 Ways to Organize Your Desk. You mean there are really seventy-two? I need to know!
- 18 Different Ways to Make a Million Dollars in One Year or Less. Only eighteen, huh? Well, I need to find out what they are.
- 15 Things You Need to Know about Paris Hilton’s Personal Life. Ah, just fifteen things. Okay. I’m going to find out.
Statements of affirmation are begging for agreement. We like to feel that what we believe is the right thing. We crave that acceptance of our thoughts, values, opinions and morals.
Thus, article titles with underlying affirmation signals tend to pique our interest.
- Why You Were So Right When You Voted for Obama
- Getting Drunk In College Was Actually Good for You, Study Reveals
- Why Building Credit Card Debt Might Actually Save You Money in the Long Run
Regardless of whether it’s legitimate, we like that feeling of affirmation. But the affirming warmth comes with the chill of disequilibrium.
Why, exactly was your vote for Obama the right one? What benefits did your dissipation provide you in college? What is the upside of being upside down in credit card debt?
So, you look for resolution.
The issue of relevancy is closely tied to the third mental process we mentioned — the fact that your mind compares things that it reads in a title with other information that it already knows.
Let’s say you’re fascinated with butterflies. You are a lepidoptera maniac. You study them, read about them, capture them, pin them and photograph them.
No surprise, then, that you’ll click on an article title called, “Billions of Monarch Butterflies are Coming to a Town Near You!”
Butterflies are relevant in your mind. You have a heightened sensitivity to butterfly-related subjects. So, in the pursuit of resolution of your incomplete butterfly knowledge, you are likely to click on a title that has to do with butterflies.
Ah, shock value. How we love to shock and be shocked. And there are plenty of shock-value article titles out there.
- Laura Bush Is Pregnant, at Sixty-Seven Years Old!
- U.S. Government Announces Permanent Shutdown of Internet on September 2, 2014
- 180,092 Overseas Americans Will Not Be Permitted Back Into U.S. Due to Passport Mix Up
These are shocking things. To the best of my knowledge, they are not true.
But if they did appear in some noteworthy publication, I bet you’d click on them.
Humans desire an endless list of things — food, sex, relaxation, health, beauty, money, organization, space, fresh air, cleaner teeth, chewier beef jerky, dogs with silkier hair.
Seriously, the list is endless.
When an article title speaks to such desires, it opens up our craving for a resolution to those desires. Our mind interprets an article on such a subject to somehow mollify the craving. So, we click.
- You want sex? (You might find a few titillating titles to click on.)
- You want organization? Nine Creative Ways to Organize Your Refrigerator
- You want better sleep? Here’s How to Make Sure You Sleep Like a ROCK Tonight
- You want food? The Perfect Marinade for Grilled Chicken
- You want money? Make Two Grand a Month With This Crazy Simple Trick!
Our desires demand resolution. And so we go, clicking away to find resolution.
Anger introduces a different kind of disequilibrium that demands resolution. It is disequilibrium of an emotional variety. We are thrown off emotionally, and need the resolution for a return to status quo.
- Here’s the Real Reason The Government Takes 40% of Your Paycheck
- Five Ways to Get Back at Your Jackass Boss
- You Are Stupid If You Don’t Read This Article
The sense of anger or rising emotion that we feel when we read titles like this, makes us want to return to a state of placidity.
Article titles are powerful things, because they have such profound mental effects. If we use them effectively and create them carefully, we will become more successful at what we do.
What are some of your article title tricks?