Photo by The Lucky Neko
Dammit! You did it again. You clicked. You bit the bait.
But don’t worry, I promise this will actually be useful (unlike the majority of articles you click on).
If you’re like me, you noticed the sheer flood of clickbait on the internet at large and Medium in particular. With every second headline, you get the feeling that you’ve seen it before:
“I [did some activity] for [number of days]. Here’s what happened.”
“How I [achieved something desirable] in [surprisingly short time frame].”
“[Some number] things you are doing that make you [negative outcome or emotion].”
And yes, the title of this essay belongs in this category too. The thing is, you write at a severe disadvantage if you don’t play the game of clicks. Similar to a TV flashing in the background, clickbait is impossible to ignore and it takes an almost inhuman amount of self-control not to engage. With ten lit up flashing TV screens, who is paying attention to the bad lit poster?
It’s not your fault. It’s your brain’s (so yeah… actually it is your fault).
While I can’t promise you that you’ll be cured of your clickbait addiction at the end of this essay (nope, no magic pill here), I can provide some sexy self-knowledge and understanding.
You’ll also learn four ways to write a killer headline, but this is of course way less sexy…
To find the answer to today’s lack of creative headlines we have to dig into a bit of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. There are two fundamental ingredients that make your brain waste a click and a couple of minutes of your life on a juicy headline.
Oh look it’s moving!
The human brain has one very important job to do, not die. To do this it has to pay close attention to the important things, namely imminent danger and lucky opportunities. On the one hand, it wants to make sure that you spot the lion charging you on the Savannah. On the other hand, if you only pay attention to the possible dangers, you wouldn’t get anything done. And you surely would miss the juicy fruit up the tree, because you’re so preoccupied checking the ground for snakes.
But our brain is also lazy. Because surviving is hard and takes up a lot of energy, our brain tries to save as much of it as it can. This means that you’re only paying attention to a fraction of what is happening around you.
Your brain uses a shortcut to get the most out of spotting danger and opportunity, while at the same time, saving as much energy as possible. It does so by paying attention to change. This is quite genius actually. As long as nothing changes noticeably, your brain assumes everything is as safe as before. However, if a change happened your brain has to check if the situation got better or worse and if you have to adapt your behavior.
That’s why you inevitably take a look at the flashing TV screen. It is also why almost every good book starts with some change in the first few sentences.
Take two random books off your shelf to check.
- The Gentleman, Forrest Leo, first three sentences:
My name is Lionel Savage, I am twenty-two years old, I am a poet, and I do not love my wife. I loved her once, not without cause — but I do not anymore. She is a vapid, timid querulous creature, and I find after six months of married life that my position has become quite intolerable and I am resolved upon killing myself.
2. Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, first two sentences:
Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends.
If you pay close attention you might’ve already caught a glimpse of the second ingredient for the art of hijacking your brain. It’s also included in both these book excerpts.
The second ingredient is __________________
I know, this might be too flat a joke, even for such an article, but the second ingredient is literally information gaps.
They’re the guaranteed way to make your brain curious. Your brain hates not knowing. It can’t deal with it because it’s programmed to find missing information. This makes sense from a survival perspective because missing information might mean missing a potential danger or opportunity.
According to George Loewenstein and his paper The Psychology of Curiosity, there are four ways to invoke curiosity in our brain:
1) A question or puzzle
If we read a question we think about the answer. Even if we think we know it, we have to check if we’re right. Humans don’t like unanswered questions and so we keep on looking for answers — all the time.
This one is easy enough to implement in a headline, just any question will do — bonus points if it’s a counter-intuitive one.
Example on Medium:
2) A sequence of events with an anticipated but unknown resolution
You probably know someone that hates the ending of Inception, Blade Runner, or American Psycho. Open endings are so nerve-racking because we don’t know the resolution. We instinctively want to know how things turn out.
Applying this to headlines can be a bit tricky. Luckily, Medium cuts off headlines when they’re too long. Hence, you can achieve the effect by sequencing events in a long title that gets cut off in the feed.
Example on Medium:
3) A violation of our expectation that triggers a search for explanation
This one is all about the unexpected and the counter intuitive. We’re constantly predicting the future so we are ready for it. Even while you’re reading this sentence you’re already predicting the different ways it will end. You cannot turn this off. It’s also the reason why you’re spouse thinks your not listening to them. They’re partly right, because you predict the second half of their sentence and already think about what to answer them before they’ve even finished talking.
The ‘how-to’ is simple, take any conventional wisdom and turn it on its head. Or at least give it an unexpected twist. The more established the belief the more we are attracted to these violations. We want to know why things aren’t as expected.
Example on Medium:
4) Someone else knows but we don’t
We have an urge to be the smartest person in the room. At the very least, we don’t want to be stupid. If Candice at the office knows who’s getting a raise next week, we want to know too. Why does Candice know and I don’t?! Fuck you Candice!
This can’t be applied to article headlines directly, but it’s the fundamental reason why we’re all here. We want to know what other people have already figured out (or claim to have figured out).
There you go. Now you’re initiated into the dark art of hijacking people’s brains.
Of course, the examples used in this article are not clickbait. The defining ingredient for clickbait is deceptiveness. Clickbait wants to mislead and does so by over-promising and under-delivering.
Therefore, even if you use the described ways to get people’s attention and make them curious, it’s only ethically questionable if you don’t deliver on your promise.
I’m pretty confident I delivered. Enjoy your new sexy self-knowledge!