This is the One Secret the Clickbait Companies Don’t Want You to Know

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Clickbait comes in many shapes and sizes, 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. 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 our susceptibility to voyeurism and nostalgia — and why so many of us are so desperate to find out what Ross from “Friends” has been up to.

Why We Click, Part 2: Letting You “In on It”

This style of clickbait shares a lot of its features with the “fear of missing out” tactic, albeit with a bit more subtlety. The headline, picture, and copy combination here highlights a powerful or desirable person or entity, and promises to divulge a secret that could make one rich, vastly improve one’s health, or make a person a lot of money. “Netflix doesn’t want you to know this secret,” or, “The Trump Administration changed this one rule about mortgages and they hope you don’t find out.”

“Possession of information by someone else also causes curiosity,” wrote the Carnegie Mellon University professor George Loewenstein in The Psychology of Curiosity. “Here, curiosity and social comparison are linked directly rather than by analogy.” When someone else knows something we don’t, we feel inferior, and our innate desire to be included drives us harder to pursue and obtain that knowledge we’re missing. Dionne Warwick and psychics throughout history are proof of a collective need to know life’s intimate secrets.

To Dr. Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and Professor Emirita at Golden Gate University, and author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind, “the internet is a lonely place.” In a recent interview with Men’s Journal she said, “I think we are all craving emotional stimulation — our online world, which now is where we find these things, are really kind of emotionally deadening.” What we’ve been trained to get from in-person interactions, we now seek online and are left wanting for the opportunity to be “in on it.” 

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