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 to that site. It's been estimated this is a multibillion-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 our fear of missing out — and how it is used to draw us in for a click.
Why We Click, Part 1: Fear of Missing Out
Being the last person to know something is psychologically painful. Think of everyone gathered around the water cooler talking, laughing, exchanging knowing glances, with you on the outside looking in. This feeling is the one that is most commonly exploited by clickbait, which promises to provide the inclusion we all desire. A click here will immediately place you on the inside.
Dr. Kit Yarrow, professor emiritus at Golden Gate University, and author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind, thinks what may make this approach so effective is that it draws on a collective and common fear of the unknown. Before the Internet, the amount of knowledge a person was expected to know was far more limited, she says. "We used to be a little more comfortable with not knowing."
But now, the volume of information available to any one person is far greater than that one person could ever consume. George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology out of Carnegie Mellon's Social and Decision Sciences Department, asserted in his seminal 1994 paper, The Psychology of Curiosity, that "new information provides an ever changing idea of what there is to be known." The internet is an infinite fountain of new information.
And to Yarrow, those shifting sands of what's important to know and what's not means, "We have more anxiety today than we've ever had before," she said, "The antidote is to feel in control. And I think the bite-sized pieces of knowledge or insight or understanding," that clickbait promises, "makes the world seem more understandable and controllable."
The headline's promise to reduce our fear, to bring us into the know, push back what's beyond our control, drives our hand to click, to know more and then inevitably to be disappointed.