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The psychology behind clickbait: what it is and why we fall for it

Clickbait uses shocking titles to lure Internet users to low-quality content.

“You won’t believe your eyes!”

“Shocking secrets, revealed!”

“…and what happened next is unimaginable!”

Sound familiar?

You might have noticed that eye-catching article titles and questionable news stories—not to mention excessive exclamation points—are taking over your social media feeds. This kind of content, popularly known as “clickbait,” has been stalking internet users more and more in recent years. These seductive headlines lure you into opening an article that contains poor content—which the average person spends under 15 seconds reading.

In other words, companies are feeding off the human need to gain more knowledge in order to build revenue via clicks-per-page. And many of us continue to fall for these headlines on a daily basis—but why? To understand, first we need to define the phenomenon itself.

What is clickbait?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary incorporated the term in 2015, defining clickbait as “something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.” To put it plainly, it’s a link that sparks curiosity and generates traffic, but ultimately leads to low-quality content.

The origins of clickbait lie in yellow journalism. This journalistic style relies on attention-grabbing headlines designed to increase sales, rather than objective and well-researched facts. It was born in the 1890s, when newspaper magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were engaged in a furious competition for readership. They began using sensational titles in an attempt to attract readers as quickly as possible.

Another of the fathers of clickbait is journalist Vincent Musetto, who in 1983 covered a story about a bar owner being shot to death after an argument with a customer. Its title, “Headless body in topless bar,” is considered by many to be the first truly audacious headline. These kinds of developments set the tone for today’s digital battle for clicks and views, in a world where content is more abundant and accessible than ever before.

Vincent Musetto's sensational headline is an early example of clickbait's origins in journalism.

The infamous cover story (image courtesy of the New York Post)

Exploiting curiosity and clicks

Clickbait takes advantage of the human need to expand our knowledge, whether it be through funny cat videos, quantum physics, or that poorly-written article blowing up your Facebook feed. This universal human curiosity has been explained by George Loewenstein, an economics and psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, in his information gap theory. It states that humans have a constant, unsatisfied need to accumulate knowledge, whether it’s useful or not.

Information gap theory can help explain clickbait’s psychology when it comes to the reader—but on the company’s end, things are much more financially-motivated. Pay-per-click advertising allows companies to earn a fixed amount of money for each click or view an article receives. This creates a high demand for intriguing titles, but not so much for intriguing content. The initial click is the money-maker, so what comes after is much less important. As a result, articles are churned out faster and faster, with a corresponding drop in quality.

The power of post-click

Beyond the issues of low-quality content and greed, there’s also the problem of data collection. If audience perception is measured solely through clicks-per-page and views, the results won’t reflect the content’s true value. To obtain accurate and meaningful data, companies should shift their focus to post-click statistics: article sharing, movement to other articles, and the time spent on each one.

Post-click statistical measurement is slowly on the rise among companies, especially those focused on producing quality content and creating a loyal audience. This encourages marketing strategies that tap into a different part of human psychology: emotions. For example, it’s a widely known fact that advertisements and logos strategically utilize colors to manipulate consumers’ emotions—and motivate their purchases.

Articles can tap into readers' emotions to generate traffic and interest in content.

Angry readers means more likes

Similarly, articles can evoke emotions in readers that inform their post-click choices. Research has shown that when an article sparks anger, the viewer is more likely to “like” it. When a piece of content is inspirational, however, the viewer is more likely to share it. Using these emotional responses to engage readers and maximize viewership is an increasingly important marketing strategy.

The social media clickbait battle

The debate around clickbait is getting more heated by the day, enraging users across the vast expanse of the Internet. Some social media platforms are even considering changing their algorithms to reduce the amount of unwanted content on users’ feeds. Facebook, for example, has already taken concrete action to remove clickbait and fake news. One of their tactics consists of reviewing articles and labeling them as “disputed” if their content is of questionable quality. With 2 billion users worldwide and an infinite amount of circulating content, they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them—but it’s a start.

Hopefully, other platforms will follow Facebook’s lead and start implementing strategies to fight back against the clickbait invasion. If post-click analysis and a focus on emotional impact can successfully overtake the pay-per-click paradigm, our feeds will be all the better for it. With any luck, we’ll see a decline in low-quality articles and a spike in well-written, substantial, and meaningful content that treats readers with the respect they deserve.

VeraContent is a creative language agency producing high-quality content that aspires to more than spontaneous clicks. To see what we can do for you, consult our multilingual copywriting service page.

Erin O'Flaherty
Erin is a traveling enthusiast obsessed with wonderful cuisine. In her spare time, she runs an Instagram for her cat (hotdog5454).
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