How Does Clickbait Work?

We've all been hooked by clickbait. How does it work, and what can we do?

Posted Sep 06, 2019

CarmenMurillo/iStock
Source: CarmenMurillo/iStock

Before starting this blog I spent 10 minutes reading "The Most Expensive Bloopers Made in Hollywood Films." That wasn't research — I got hooked by clickbait! I'll do you the courtesy of not including the link to that article here. But you will be happy to know that after spending those 10 sacred minutes reading the clickbait, I have achieved...enlightenment.

Alas, if enlightenment could be achieved by clickbait, the whole world would be enlightened right now! It would justify all the mindless time I've spent on various forms of clickbait over the years. Sadly, that time is gone forever. Was it worth it? I'm not happier for biting those hooks. However, I could make a strong case that I would have been more productive if I had not clicked the bait. It's kind of funny that I'm a grown-up, a psychologist, and have written a book about the power screens have over us, and I still sometimes fall prey to clickbait. What's going on here?

I'm a bit of a news junkie—a habit I'm trying to break—and I often hit up CNN for my "quick fix." Many of CNN's alluring headlines practically qualify as clickbait themselves, but what really gets me is the stories at the bottom of the page. Just scroll down a bit, and it's clickbait heaven (or hell?). "You Won't Believe What These Former Child Stars Look Like Now!" the clickbait reads. My brain replies, "Oh, yeah? I'll be the judge of that!" 

I'm not the only one who chases after clickbait. It's there for a reason—it works! But how does it work? What can we do about it?

Just What Is Clickbait?

Before we go into how clickbait works, let's define it. I like the Merriam-Webster definition better than Wikipedia's version. M-W defines clickbait as: "Something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest." 

Sometimes clickbait is more like bait and switch. That is, we read a catchy headline or link, click it, only to find ourselves enveloped within an ad. The majority of clickbait is of the "dubious value" variety. There is content when we click on the link, but it is heavily wrapped in advertisements. Thus, the article or video is in actuality a lure that exposes us to the ad, which is the true purpose of the content. When enough people are exposed to the ads, there will be a percentage of us who become buyers of the products being marketed. Again, we know this clickbait model works well enough because, if it didn't, it wouldn't exist. It's a product of Darwinian capitalism.

How Does Clickbait Hook Us?

There isn't just one simple answer to this question, but let's cover one of the reasons we can't seem to resist clickbait. We humans are drawn to seek out information in our world because it has survival value. We forage for information much in the way our ancestors foraged for food. This is "hardwired" into us. Clickbait is the promise that unbelievable, provocative, or shocking information will be revealed if we just click that link. 

Our dopamine-reward system is involved in our motivation to learn about our world. Dopamine, a hormone, is involved in pleasure, but it has many functions. While this is certainly nuanced and can get very technical, there is a body of research suggesting that dopamine incentivizes behavior more through wanting (called incentive salience) than liking. In effect, the dopamine creates an itch that needs to be scratched. 

Clickbait works, in part, because the promise of compelling information activates a particular dopamine pathway. Dopamine is released and creates that itch that can only be scratched by obtaining the promised information. Biting the hook (i.e., obtaining the information) doesn't truly give us great pleasure. What it gives us is a relief from that "itch" from not clicking the link. In this way, it can be considered a kind of negative reinforcement

The "Vegas Effect"

Another way in which clickbait lures us in is through a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. This is sometimes referred to as the "Vegas Effect" because variable ratio reinforcement schedules are involved in gambling.  I blogged about The "Vegas Effect" of Our Screens in a discussion of why screens can be so difficult to resist.

Those clickbait headlines make us curious to see what's behind the curtain, so to speak. To quote the sagacious, Forrest Gump, who was quoting his mother, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get." We just don't know how shocking these answers will be. Just how bad will my favorite child actor look?  Who were the best rock & roll drummers of all time?  I've got to know why these celebrity marriages ended so abruptly!

It's very similar to when a friend says they have some hot gossip or someone says they have a surprise for you. In part, it can also explain why we have difficulty resisting the temptation to check our phones for texts and social media updates (e.g., who liked my post and what are the comments?).

When we are put in a state of anticipation (i.e., I wonder what this might be?), dopamine is released, which incentives our seeking behavior. We have a hard time resisting the urge to scratch that itch. Many shows end in cliffhangers for this reason. To some degree, our dopamine "wanting" system is activated when we are put into a state of anticipation (e.g., Who shot J.R. from the TV show Dallas? What is behind the hatch in Lost? Who will sit on the Iron Throne in Game of Thrones?).

How Can We Resist the Temptation of Clickbait?

Resisting clickbait is difficult because it is exploiting the neural circuitry that evolved over millions of years. Our brains weren't designed to be exposed to the variety of temptations that are found in this hyper-connected world. Neuroscientists and psychologists work in the marketing field and know just how to exploit these neural circuits, which is called persuasive design. In much the same way it's difficult to resist eating potato chips when they are in front of us, it's difficult to resist clickbait because we are bombarded by it. Here are a few tips that might help:

  1. Don't beat yourself up about it. Everyone clicks the bait at times. It's a universal struggle these days. Know that you are NOT alone. 
  2. Know that it's not that harmful. There's no need to catastrophize about clickbait. Sure, it causes us to waste some time that could be better spent in other ways. Still, for the vast majority of us, while it might reduce our productivity, it's not ruining our lives. We are just leaving some of our productivity "on the table." But just who is 100% productive 100% of the time anyway?
  3. Measure it! "If you can not measure it, you can not improve it." - Lord Kelvin. There is some wisdom in Lord Kelvin's statement. Just as counting calories consumed can help us reduce the number we consume, consider tracking how often you bite the clickbait and how long you stay on it. The act of doing this is likely to reduce both your frequency and time on clickbait. 
  4. The good news - we can improve! If you think clickbait is hurting your productivity, pivot slightly from that perspective because it also means that your productivity can improve! No sense beating yourself up about the past - what's that going to do? You aren't getting the time back. But the future, well, that's wide open!
  5. Think of strategies outside of when the problem is happening. Come up with some ideas when the problem is not happening. Put some of those ideas into place and assess the results. Start with the simplest, easiest to implement strategies. Sometimes even small changes yield big returns. 
  6. Notice your patterns and replace them with more adaptive ones. Perhaps through a little data collection, you realize that you tend to go down the YouTube wormhole (arguably, a subtype of clickbait) at work later in the day. What purpose is it serving? Maybe you have need of a break? Is there something else you can do to relieve boredom or angst? Go for a walk around the building? Call your partner to check-in? Get a cup of coffee or tea? Work on something else?
  7. Consider using some website blocking tools. There are a number of tools and apps that can help save ourselves from ourselves. For instance, if we keep checking a particular website for news updates (and get hooked by clickbait), we can install a tool that will limit our access to those tempting sites during time periods that we define.   
  8. Consider using clickbait as a reward. Set work productivity goals, such as you will work uninterrupted for 45 minutes (e.g., no checking the phone, email, YouTube, the news). After 45 minutes, you can then use clickbait or one of the many other time suckers, such as social media, as a reward for reaching a benchmark for a 15-minute break. In effect, you are strategically using clickbait instead of it using you.

The Takeaway?

Clickbait is here to stay. We will be encountering more versions of it, as well as various other screen temptations, as new technologies emerge. We must remember the sky is not falling. The good news is that, with some small changes, we can get some of our productivity back. As a reward for completing this blog, I think I will look at "21 Jokes from 'The Simpsons' That Actually Came True." I can't wait to find out!