11 Reasons We're Too Dumb to Resist Clickbait

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Ok. Let’s get this out of the way right up front. You’ve been had. This is not a list of 11 items and it’s not about how dumb you are. I don’t think you’re dumb at all. You can unclench your fists and stop mentally composing your angry retort for the comments section.

This article isn’t what the headline suggests. It’s actually about how you clicked on the headline, how you followed the link, how you took the bait.

And here’s the lazy metaphor to go with it:

Imagine you’re a happy little fish swimming along in the great big ocean, admiring all the other colorful fish out there and feeling generally stimulated by the vast amount of authentic life teeming all around you. Then, you see a strangely colored worm bobbing unnaturally just below the surface.

You look up at the worm and you say to yourself, “there’s something not quite right about that worm. It looks fake, possibly poisonous and as a health-conscious fish, I try to avoid eating things that are obviously made of weird rubber-plastic polymers. The last time I ate one of these, my face was pierced by a barb-covered hook. You know what? I’m going to eat it anyway.”

That, my friends, is the magic of clickbait. We’re all just a bunch of happy little fish swimming in the great big digital ocean. We’re surrounded by nutritious information. We know that there are infinite ways to make a friend, make a buck, make a difference, all through the web. We know there are so many good, healthy, constructive ways to spend our time. At our ready disposal are peer-reviewed scientific journals, news outlets both corporate and grass-roots, ostensibly infinite statistical resources concerning any matter which can be statistically compiled, incredible retail opportunities for the savvy shopper, and, for good measure, free access to pretty much all the great literature known to civilization. And yet, we spent 15 minutes this afternoon reading an article entitled “Guess which celebrities have gotten morbidly obese. You won’t believe how disgusting #6 is.”

We know it’s bad. We know it’s mean. We know that we are better than that, that something like this magnifies our worst and least admiral tendencies as a species, tendencies toward voyeurism, schadenfreude and intellectual laziness.

We know all of this. But then we’re like, “Wow, did Julia Roberts really gain 200 pounds and enter into a life of semi-paralyzed seclusion?”

We quickly find out that no, no she didn’t.

But we can’t stop ourselves from clicking, from taking the bait, from satisfying a certain sad curiosity that makes us feel guilty, and embarrassed, but that almost never stops us from taking the bait again and again and again. Sometimes we take that bait almost as soon as we finish digesting the first toxic worm. Now that we know which celebrities are fat, we can’t help but jump right into the next article at the bottom of the page, whether it’s about which celebrities are now hopelessly broke, or it’s a gallery of pictures taken “just before tragedy struck,” or it’s a series of images that are said to “leave nothing to the imagination.”

In principle, clickbait fills us with shame, self-loathing, judgment for others and the feeling that we’ve been recently burgled of the last 10 minutes of our lives. But what is clickbait exactly and why does it work so well? The answer will amaze you!

Just kidding.

But it may perhaps make you feel a little better about yourself, or worse. I’m not sure. I don’t actually know you. The point is, to click is human. It isn’t one of our finer qualities as a species, but we are programmed to take the bait and the bait is programmed to take us.

What is Clickbait?

So the word seems pretty self-explanatory. The web is absolutely festering with half-cooked headlines and photoshopped images just begging for your attention. “Click Me” they say, “and behold the tabloidal emptiness within, if only to distract from your own psychic pain and emotional bankruptcy for a few numbing moments.”

Ok. Maybe it doesn’t say all that. But it definitely says “click me,” and in a number of different ways. Clickbait may refer to a link whose resulting article doesn’t actually deliver on its promise, or to one that delivers on its promise, but poorly, or to one whose promise inherently has no merit.

Baiting And Switching

It’s not unusual to stumble on a headline that reads something like “Guess which stars died way too young” attached to a photograph of Macauley Caulkin. The Home Alone star is alive and, as far as we know, in excellent health. But you were curious so you clicked the link anyway and, guess what, Caulkin was nowhere on the list. Again, you’ve been had. But at least now you know the sad stories of Jonathan Brandis and the kid who played Alfalfa.

Standing and Not Really Delivering

Sometimes clickbait actually delivers on its promise, but poorly. Take, for example, the bevy of fascinating historical photos that circulate freely on the web. You might be drawn in by a headline that says something like, “mind-blowing photos from history that they never wanted you to see.”

Putting aside the fact that it’s never very clear who “they” is nor why “they” wouldn’t want you to see photos whose subjects have been dead for 100 years, you click the link. Upon arrival at your destination, you may indeed find mind-blowing photos from history.

You may also find captions that read something like this:

“Pictured above is a jet fighter, probably from one of the World Wars, likely the 2nd or 3rd. Jet fighters were often used in battle, which enabled soldiers to fly in jets while in battle. The area in which the pilot sits is known as the cockpit. Cir. 19th or 20th Century.”

So the picture was cool but in the end, you’ve actually learned nothing about it. You also realize that the person writing the caption knows less than you do about the subject. And then, when you attempt to click “next” so you can view the next horribly-captioned-but-no-less-fascinating photo, you accidentally click on one of dozens of animated sponsor banners, pop-up advertisements or commercial video boxes.

Suddenly you’re halfway through booking a Carnival Cruise and you can’t even remember how you got there . . . which is, of course, the whole point.

Making Empty Promises

Clickbait doesn’t always have to break its promise. Nor does that promise always have to be kept poorly. Sometimes, the promise itself can be inherently hyperbolic, and therefore impossible to satisfy.

For instance, if a link says something like “The cameraman couldn’t believe what this cheerleader did but he just kept rolling,” and you click on it expecting a series of images in which cheerleaders endure revealing wardrobe malfunctions, you’ll probably get exactly what you bargained for. You may even enjoy some sort of temporary contentment from the experience as well.

But still, there’s really nothing about your experience suggesting a narrative in which a specific cheerleader took a particular action, nor is there any evidence that a specific cameraman made a personal decision to keep rolling. An article in Mediaite says that this kind of clickbait headline, while presenting some variation on the truth, is nonetheless inherently untruthful.

As the article points out, clickbait peddles in innately dishonest language, adorning otherwise straightforward headlines with exaggeration, hyperbole or fabricated specificity. So when you see a headline that reads “these are the absolute most adorable piglets you’ll ever see,” it’s not that you won’t see adorable piglets when you click on the link. It’s that there’s no way of objectively proving that they are the most adorable pigs you will ever personally see.

The piglets may be adorable but we lack a proper metric to determine where they rank in a scale of the most adorable piglets you have or are ever likely to see. Moreover, the phrasing of the headline is such that the reality would be different for every beholder. Having spent little time around livestock of any kind myself, I imagine it would be easier to impress me with an adorable piglet than your average sausage herder (I concede that’s probably not the technical term for the job).

The point is, the headline makes a promise that it can’t actually keep, at least not in a meaningful or truthful way. The promise is itself an empty set.

But this matters not in the least so long as you feel you’ve been given sufficient reason to click. And the reason? Well that is the premise behind clickbait. The quality, accuracy or pertinence of the content you arrive at is irrelevant. All that matter are emotions and curiosity

Baiting the Hook

On its face, clickbaiting is pretty obvious. It’s manipulative but you know you’re being manipulated. So for the person writing a clickbait-y headline, the key is to manipulate in a way that appeals to the reader’s emotions and curiosity (as opposed to the reader’s intellect).

Writing clickbait headlines is simply a matter of combining half an actual idea with a generic provocation. For instance:

  • “This man filled his washing machine with puppies and carpet tacks. What happens next is horrific . . . ”
  • “Do just this one thing and you will never have to go to the bathroom ever again . . . ”
  • “Drinking these household cleaning fluids with club soda could be deadly. #8 will shock you . . . ”
  • “These completely anonymous people that you’ve never heard of are practically unrecognizable now . . . ”
  • “This guy rear-mounted a jet engine to his el Camino. You’ll never guess what they peeled him off of . . . 

So basically, take any one of these clauses, combine it with an actual concept and you’ve officially baited the hook. It works with almost anything. For instance:

“You won’t believe what happens when (fill in the blank)”

You’ve piqued curiosity, even if the conclusion to the whole sentence is “You won’t believe what happens . . . you combine vinegar and oil!”

Obviously, the answer is that you get salad dressing. But it doesn’t matter. You’ve already reeled us in with your provocative phrasing.

What is that? What is the impulse that drives us to click? And why does it work, even against our better judgment? We want to be informed. We want to be educated. We want to be stimulated. And yet we can’t resist the temptation to simply be titillated, possibly even insulted.

Are we all merely slaves to our own basest impulses?

Well, science says that we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. Apparently, it is human nature that inclines us to click on that which deceives us, that which repulses us, and especially that which fills us with anger.

Whether it’s a science, an art, or strictly a marketing technique, clickbait exploits this emotional reflex.

An article in Wired notes that, as internet browsers, we are inherently moved by emotional arousal, that we have an actual, physical response to this sensation. And of course, as web users, we have no recourse more immediately at our disposal than simply clicking on stuff. So when something makes us angry, sad, or disgusted, we are particularly vulnerable to its manipulation.

Wired reports that “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.’”

This brew of emotion becomes all the more powerful when you spike it with curiosity. Generally speaking, curiosity is a valuable intellectual trait. But it is also very easy to exploit. Economist and Carnegie Mellon professor George Loewenstein outlined the “information-gap” theory, which surmises that there are emotional consequences to any perceived gap between what we know and what we want to know.

Loewenstein observed that “Such information gaps produce the feeling of deprivation labeled curiosity. . . . The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation.”

This feeling, says Wired, makes us “cognitively uncomfortable.” This is the discomfort that motivates us to click on links that otherwise present no real nutritious value. This is true even if we know, deep down inside, that clicking the link won’t bring us any lasting or meaningful comfort. The real trick with clickbait is that it makes you feel like you want to know things that, innately, you probably don’t really care about.

You’ve been emotionally aroused. And perhaps the experience on the other end, honest or not, satisfies this arousal. You don’t really know until you’ve followed the link. This uncertainty almost always precedes the less-than-satisfying experience you’ll likely have once you’ve arrived at your final reading destination.

Interestingly, this uncertainty is not only not a deterrent, but it may actually heighten your temptation. When you click on a provocative, salacious, or beguiling headline, you are anticipating arousal. Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sopolsky points to an interesting phenomenon. Your arousal triggers the release of the pleasure-hormone called dopamine. But Sopolsky says it isn’t the object of your arousal that triggers this release. It is, instead, the anticipation of this arousal that causes the desired effect.

This means that the clickbait headline, and not the content itself, brings you pleasure. Clicking is merely a consummation of the act you’ve already initiated the minute you began to speculate about what was on the other end of that link. This, presumably, is why we don’t actually learn from our mistakes. From a hormonal standpoint, we don’t perceive clicking on the link as a mistake, even if the outcome is not the least bit intellectually satisfying or emotionally lasting. Our reward is in merely anticipating what might await us on the other side of that click. Our past disappointments only heighten the anticipation that, this time, we will be rewarded for our trust.

Truth vs Fiction

What’s the difference between clickbait and sensationalism? Well, the line is a pretty fine one. And it’s actually important not to conflate the premise of clickbait with the imperative that authors, journalists, bloggers and publishers feel to develop appealing headlines.

Full disclosure, we at TBS Magazine consider this very subject every day as we craft headlines that we hope will attract your interest. We want you to click, and not because we’re selling a dream vacation, or erectile dysfunction pills, or home loan refinancing. It’s because we’ve gone to the trouble of creating content that we think might interest you. But as the science of clicking suggests, we must first arouse you.

I’m not trying to get fresh (unless you want me to). Point is, we do our best to dangle a nutritious worm on the hook, to appeal to the emotions and curiosities that drive reader decisions. That’s no secret. We do it and so does everybody else on the web. And we would be remiss to ignore the science underlying your clicking behavior.

That said, it is a mistake to simply conflate the objective of attracting readers with the act of clickbaiting.

As an article in Deadspin points out, accusing a site or publication of clickbaiting merely for writing a provocative or even sensationalistic headline is misguided. As the article explains, “Used as an epithet, the word ‘clickbait’ presents a tautology as a criticism. You published something, and want people to read it, too. Taken at face value, it’s less than meaningless — it’s self-negating. It’s obscurantist, senselessly treating journalism as if the high modernist values of contingency and complexity were journalism’s own. It’s moralistic, proposing a false binary between stories that serve the public interest and those cynically presented just because people will read them. It’s suspicious, hostile, and patronizing. It confuses decorum with integrity.”

Stated more simply, the fact that an article is written poorly, researched shoddily, or clearly designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator among readers does not make it clickbait. Dishonesty must inherently be present.

To this end, the article in Mediaite points out that exactly what clickbait is is a matter which has been subject to some debate. So frequently is the term uttered in this day and age that its meaning has become a bit blurry. Mediaite argues that clickbait is content which follows a fundamentally misleading headline. Such is to say that an article which is inherently a waste of your time is not necessarily clickbait, even if all clickbait articles are inherently a waste of your time.

The article argues that even websites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy—some of the web’s dominant clickbait outlets — are not comprised entirely of clickbait. While misleading and hyperbolic headlines help to drive traffic to these sites, any number of headlines there within may actually be largely steeped in truth.

A quick look at Buzzfeed during the time of writing shows a site fairly split between honest headlines and clickbait. For instance, headlines like “16 Pictures That Will Remind You What Life Was Like in 2007,” “Here’s Meryl Streep’s Speech About Trump and Hollywood At The Golden Globes,” and “7 Practical Ways to Eat Healthier in the New Year” may seem like clickbait but, in fact, all deliver explicitly on their promises.

Thus, according to Mediaite’s definition, these would not be considered clickbait, whereas headlines like “18 Things Only Aspiring Cat Ladies Will Understand,” “28 Bedding Sets That Are Almost Too Cool To Sleep On,” and “Ryan Gosling’s Golden Globe Acceptance Speech Will Destroy You” all share the qualities of hyperbole, manipulation and, in their exaggeration or the definitive nature of their respective claims, are necessarily misleading in nature.

Not Clickbait but Definitely “Clickbait-y”

So it isn’t necessarily useful or even accurate to accuse every news outlet, blogger, or content-flogger of clickbaiting. But even those which are inherently honest, and which do attempt to deliver on their headline promises, are under increasing pressure to borrow some strategy from their clickbaiting counterparts. Legitimate or not, news outlets and others must compete for readers if they are to justify the effort of creating content.

To the point, a recent study by the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics revealed that serious articles published in peer-reviewed science journals do a better job of attracting eyeballs when they obey the same behavioral principles that inform clickbaiting. The study, which analyzed more than 2000 article titles published in Frontiers in Psychology between 2013 and 2014, found that articles which used “positive framing” and “phrasing arousal” were more widely shared online. Those which used more abstract headlines employing clever wordplay did not perform as well.

The implication of the study is basically that the same instincts which drive you to click on fluffy digital garbage can be used to drive you to click into content that will actually enhance your knowledge, satisfy your intellectual curiosity, or promote some lasting sense of emotional contentment. That stuff just happens to be in far shorter supply on the internet. Like I said, it takes a lot less time and energy to create bad content.

And let’s face it. That bad content comes at us like a stampede of rainbow-colored steer even as actual information flutters above like dimly-patterned butterflies. While clickbait-y headlines can be used to draw you toward fact and knowledge, Wired says that we have difficulty resisting the path of least cognitive resistance. In other words, the brain tends to be instinctively lazy when presented with a choice between thinking and simply consuming. And in an era where dollars and cents are precipitated by social media “likes” and “shares,” creating readily consumable headlines is the name of the game.

This probably accounts for the fact that a clickbait-fueled site like Upworthy so dramatically outperforms a leading news outlet like CNN in the social media arena. According to a Hootsuite article, in November of 2013, “Upworthy had twice as many total social media shares on its content that month as CNN.com, but published approximately one twenty-sixth (225 to CNN’s 6,079) the total number of articles. Upworthy averages about 75,000 Facebook likes per article, which is 12 times what another expert practitioner of click bait, Buzzfeed, can claim.”

Hootsuite notes that Upworthy is just better than CNN at crafting headlines that mine the “curiosity gap.” If CNN chose to play the same baiting game, its headlines might look something like this:

  • “An armed suspect enters the local shopping mall and opens fire. You won’t believe what happens next!”
  • “Nominees for the Supreme Court? These judicial robes leave nothing to the imagination!”
  • “You’ll never guess which totalitarian dictator just put the smackdown on freedom of press.”
  • “31 Amazing Things You Never Knew About the current ceasefire in Aleppo. #9 Will Completely Transform Your Life.”

Of course, seeing serious headlines presented so frivolously makes us feel kind of dirty. We do expect that a certain decorum should accompany journalistic integrity. But our behavior as clickers and sharers does not make the job of journalists any easier. We can complain about the ethics and intellectual heft behind the practice of clickbaiting but we can’t dispute its effectiveness. We just can’t help ourselves.

How Bad Should We Feel about It?

Where is the tipping point? At what juncture do the conditions which have helped clickbaiters dominate the web ultimately transform the way that news outlets write headlines? And at what point does this transformation seep into the way that the content itself is presented? And what chance of survival does truth really have in this environment?

This year’s election cycle revealed a web-consuming public that is collectively incapable of differentiating between fact and fiction, between actual news and mere content, between a hearty information-sandwich and a wilted word salad. On the whole, we’ve been so conditioned to accept the permeation of factually-challenged content that we have difficulty distinguishing information from clickbait.

Even if both journalism and clickbait use emotion to draw you in, even if both speak to your innate curiosity, even if both occasionally move you to anger, the real difference is that clickbait has no obligation to the truth. Those whose job it is to wrangle you into clicking are in no way committed to producing truth or to satisfying your curiosity gap by actually informing you of anything.

It is this very freedom from obligation that has fueled both the proliferation and public acceptance of “fake news.” Even if clickbait is driven by the science of human behavior — be it psychological, sociological, cultural or all of the above — clickbait is in turn driving and forging new behavioral norms all the time.

These norms do not offer a rosy outlook for either traditional news media or the so-called “knowledge economy.” As much as the web is an ocean swirling with nutritious facts, it is also a deep, dark abyss forever stealing your squinting gaze in this murky direction or that one. You have nothing but your own intuition and wits to protect you from the angler’s hook.

There isn’t really a solution to this “problem.” Arguably, it would be judgmental to even call it a problem at all. The freedom of consumption suggests that it’s really your call whether you want to be filled with knowledge or merely stimulated by empty, fleeting, and dishonest arousal. But suffice it to say that you, the happy little fish, have a choice. Be nourished or be baited.

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