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The Scientific Reasons Why Clickbait Actually Works

Unleashed by sites like Upworthy, clickbait has come to dominate many areas of the Web.

Peak clickbait has probably passed us by, but many publishers – especially those purporting to be news websites – are still using it to major effect.

And even if you’re in a conservative B2B-focused industry, you can still learn the lessons it has to offer for crafting your own marketing copy.

What is Clickbait?

Clickbait is content calculated to maximize reader clicks, attention, and shares.

Of course, all content is meant to be read and most aspires to be shared, but clickbait is different. It uses emotional hooks to create nearly irresistible psychological frisson for the unsuspecting user. Much of this is accomplished through enticing headlines.

Clickbait has a bad reputation in many circles because many writers don’t focus on actually delivering on the promises made by those headlines. When clickbait consistently overpromises and under-delivers, even the most trusting Web user eventually tunes it out.

That said, the flip side of the coin can be profound.

The “Upworthy headline,” which conceals the topic of a story until you click on it, propelled its namesake to become one of the world’s top websites.

In fact, it was reaching nearly 90 million people each and every month until its decline started in November 2013.

Clickbait gets shared further than other content. It inspires engagement and, often, commentary. And it’s important to remember that Upworthy didn’t fall because of its clickbait: The site’s business model became unsustainable thanks to changes on Facebook.

Yes, people did get wise to the content paradigm Upworthy helped to pioneer.

And yes, did they complain about it a lot.

But publishers can use Upworthy’s techniques to great effect ...

... as long as that’s not all they do.

After all – despite all that some people have castigated clickbaiting as manipulative or repetitive – many established journalistic brands are deploying the exact same tactics throughout their sites.

The Secret to Upworthy’s Success Will Amaze You

There’s one big secret to how clickbait works on the brain: The curiosity gap.

The curiosity gap refers to the space between what we know and what we want to know.

There are three big reasons why this is powerful:

Low Ambiguity Tolerance

People are wired to dislike ambiguity. This has been true since back in the very beginning, when a rustling in the bushes could herald the arrival of a dangerous predator. When ambiguous stimuli is at risk of being ignored, the brain’s limbic system gets involved.

The limbic system, also called the lizard brain, is the partnership of neural networks and systems in charge of basic emotions like fear, anger, and pleasure. It also regulates fundamental survival drives, including hunger and the desire for sex (hubba hubba!)

Most importantly, it monitors the environment for changes and responds to threats.

Novel stimuli can cause the limbic system to kick into action in an instant. It happens far faster than a conscious thought, and it doesn’t always have a noticeable emotional component.

Nonetheless, people tend to act on limbic responses quickly and without thinking. Unless you are concentrating on something else, that bright, shiny headline is likely to break into your attention.

It’s worth noting that different cultures can exhibit higher or lower ambiguity tolerance when communicating. Still, there’s an inescapable neurological bias toward achieving whatever level of clarity “proves” there is no threat.

The Zeigarnik Effect

All other things being equal, you’re more likely to remember an unfinished task.

This effect was first remarked on in 1927 during a study headed by Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, Zeigarnik was researching the effect of interruptions on memory processing and realized that when a task is interrupted, it remains clearer in memory.

This makes a lot of practical sense when you think of today’s to-do list culture!

It’s easy to think of clickbaiting as an interruption rather than a task, but that’s not necessarily how the brain sees it. The mental effect of these headlines is to leave something potentially important unknown.

In other words, you can walk away from even the most compelling headline – but there’s a cognitive cost.

Even once you turn your attention to something else, you might find a nagging feeling that you really want to know. This feeds into another, more familiar phenomenon: One that’s just as much social as it is neurological.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

FOMO underpins virtually all today’s successful social networks and apps.

Social media in particular works by creating a self-reinforcing feedback loop where little hits of dopamine, the pleasure hormone, arise from quick interactions like checking your notifications.

Like the proverbial lab rat, even the mightiest of us will often find ourselves sliding into a pattern of repeatedly checking on “likes,” messages, and our feed to continue gobbling occasional rewards.


The underlying thought process? That something good might be happening somewhere.

(And it’s all too easy to miss it!)

With its ambiguity and implied promises of a huge emotional payout, clickbait goes above and beyond in evoking FOMO: If you don’t click, you are literally missing out.

Psychologists have become more interested in FOMO as a phenomenon, especially as it relates to younger people whose brain structures have not finished maturing. Although FOMO has always existed, digital technology broadens the horizon of opportunities to experience it.

Clickbait summons the power of FOMO in miniature by leveraging affective forecasting, our sense of how we will feel in the future. The thought of missing out is most likely to lead to a forecast of regret. People will then take action to make sure they avoid that unpleasant future.

When all is said and done, clickbait remains just as powerful as ever if used correctly.

It taps into foundational psychological drivers that none of us are immune to. Even those who consciously resist it pay a price in attention resources: It’s often much easier to just click.

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Rob Steffens

Rob Steffens

I am the Director of Sales & Marketing here at Bluleadz. I'm a recent newlywed who enjoys spending time with my wife vegging out and binging our favorite shows or getting some exercise on the Racquetball court.