Wired explores what drives successful clickbait.
Clickbait doesn’t just happen on its own. Editors write headlines in an effort to manipulate you—or at least grab your attention—and always have. “Headless Body In Topless Bar,” and “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” wouldn’t exist if publications didn’t care about attracting eyeballs. The difference with clickbait is you’re often aware of this manipulation, and yet helpless to resist it. It’s at once obvious in its bait-iness, and somehow still effective bait.
This has a lot to do with emotion and the role it plays in our daily decision-making processes, says Jonah Berger, who studies social influence and contagion at the University of Pennsylvania. Emotional arousal, or the degree of physical response you have to an emotion, is a key ingredient in clicking behaviors. Sadness and anger, for example, are negative emotions, but anger is much more potent. “It drives us, fires us up, and compels us to take action,” Berger says. If you’ve ever found yourself falling for outrage clickbait or spent time hate-reading and hate-watching something, you know what Berger is talking about. “Anger, anxiety, humor, excitement, inspiration, surprise—all of these are punchy emotions that clickbait headlines rely on,” he says.