Clickbait comes in many forms, but most of the content follows the same formula: Pair a psychologically alluring idea with an image and a cliffhanger statement, then tie it algorithmically to content users are already consuming. It's a winning approach for companies looking to monetize websites everywhere, from USA Today to The Guardian.
ChangeAdvertising.org released a report late last year stating that, “Of the Top 50 News Sites, 41 employ 'content ads,’ and that more than a quarter of the links for those ads led to what the report defined as clickbait sites. These ads are placed by "content discovery" companies who either pay the host publisher a portion of what's paid out by advertisers or send traffic bad to that site. It's been estimated this is a multi-billion-dollar slice of the online advertising business.
Yet for the majority of people drawn in to click, surefire disappointment follows. After all, says consumer psychologist Philip Graves, "it's a means to the end — but not the one you necessarily hoped it would be.” So why do so many of us keep clicking? We talked to a host of psychologists and advertising specialists to come up with an answer. Here, we look at "car wreck" clickbait — and why we can't look away from the weirdest corners of the Internet.
Why We Click, Part 3: The Freak Show
Ripley's Believe it Not, John Merrick (aka The Elephant Man), that accident on the side of the road — the collective need to ogle at oddities, stare unblinkingly, mouth agape, at other's misfortune seems downright inherent. And in this niche, maybe more than any other, the Internet provides in glorious abundance.
At no point prior in human history have people had the privilege of following down a rabbit hole any old notion or dark fantasy that came to their mind. Want to see a pancake-eating cat? You got it. Want to know what the fattest person in the world looks like? Easy. There's not much the internet won't show when asked. And, spoiled by the surplus of the strange and otherworldly, we've become lazy in our search for the interesting and macabre.
In The Psychology of Curiosity, George Loewenstein writes that “past attainments can serve as a reference point against which current attainments are compared." Because we’ve spent enough time on the Web looking for any flights of our fancy, it'll take more than a three-legged dog picture to satiate us. We're all secretly yearning to see just one more thing we've yet to witness.
Research conducted by Marco Guerini and Jacopo Staiano, during previous posts at Trento Rise and Sorbonne Universités respectively measured what psychologists call a Valence Arousal Dominance Score (VAD) within the words used in news headlines.
Valence is a psychologist's term indicating positive or negative feelings associated with a thing. Arousal describes a scale of relaxation to excitement, and dominance relates the amount of control associated with a thing. As described by the researchers through email, they were able to project the self-reported emotional assessments given by tens of thousands of readers of various news headlines within this, "tridimensional space described by the VAD model."
What Guerini and Staiano discovered was that high VAD scores of either arousal or dominance directly correlated to higher user interaction with the content. Though their research focused on actual news headlines, it's not a far leap to see how promises of strange and wondrous oddities, or shocking and otherworldly sights can rev up a person's valence score — and help the weird corners of the Internet surface over and over in the form of clickbait.