He Writes A Clickbait Headline, You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!

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Clickbait headline writing

You did it, didn’t you? You clicked on the clickbait headline. You may not have wanted to, but maybe you felt compelled to do it?

Either way, thank you. It’s nice to have you here. I’m running a little experiment to see if this type of headline gets more views. Psychology says that it will, but let’s see.

So why do we feel compelled to click on something especially when we know we’re probably going to be disappointed by it?

The Psychology Of Clickbait

The internet and social media are noisy places. Everyone is shouting, hoping to be noticed. A good headline makes all the difference between your content getting read or passed by.

Jonas Blom and Kenneth Hansen of the Centre for Journalism in the University of Southern Denmark analyzed 100,000 headlines from Danish news websites. Guess what they found? Forward reference.

The most clickbaity (is that a word?) headlines forward refer to the following article. It’s like when you overhear a snippet of conversation and you want to hear the rest. Headlines of this type use pronouns well. For example, in the headline of this post I used the pronoun ‘he’. Who is he? Read the article to find out! The pronoun becomes a teaser, enticing you to read on. Blom & Hansen refer to this as a cataphor. The longer you have to wait to find out who ‘he’ is the more your curiosity grows. In the case of my title, ‘he’ refers to me, by the way. I hope the tension was not too unbearable 🙂

The psychology of clickbaitingClick To Tweet

Bom & Hansen also mention discourse deixis as another, closely related, type of forward referencing. Simply put, you refer to something in the upcoming text. Like, “You won’t believe what happens next!” Incidentally, you clicking on the headline is what happened next. Can you believe that you fell for such a cheap trick?

So, boom. Two forward referencing techniques in one headline.

Still, that doesn’t explain why people can’t resist the urge to find out who ‘he’ is, or if they can believe what happens next. Enter Professor of Ecoonomics & Psychology,  George Loewenstein who developed the Information Gap theory of curiosity.

To make someone need to click on your article you have to arouse their curiosity by creating an information gap. If you read the headline then you know some of the information but not all. This gap in your knowledge fuels your curiosity because you feel deprived in some way. Before you know it you’re half-way through that article because you need, not want, to. The more clues you give in the headline, the more bits of the puzzle you give to the reader. The hopelessly intrigued reader then feels a need to complete the puzzle by reading the article.

Emotions and Clickbait

What makes content go viral? Lots of marketing executives would love to know the answer to this.  A  study of over 300 New York Times articles by Jonah Berger & Katherine Milkman found that evoking emotions played a large part in deciding whether a reader would share the content or not. But not all emotions are equal! Positive emotions are much more share-worthy than negative ones. Every one likes to share good vibes.

However, certain negative emotions do well too. Sadness is out, no one wants to be brought down. But feelings like anxiety and anger tend to trigger more shares.

Manipulate emotions to make content go viralClick To Tweet

Writers should be targeting high arousal emotions. Don’t aim to make your readers calm, relaxed or sad. Get them angry, happy, amused or even fearful. Highly aroused emotional states trigger social responses. We are social animals and our emotions play out in social contexts, even online.

Writers can find lists of emotional and power words to pepper into their headlines. Questions are good too as they trigger forward referencing which in turn creates the information gap. Forget sex, when it comes to articles, emotions and curiosity sell.

The Power Of Clickbait

I may have messed up the emotions part, because I’m feeling pretty depressed after all that! Clickbait headlines aim to grab the reader’s attention and to subtly coerce them into reading the content. All too often that content does not live up to the promise that the headline held. This is why people hate clickbait, and why major social media networks like Facebook vow to limit them.

There is also some evidence that clickbait headlines are losing their power, at least in their current form. However there are a lot of people working on making better headlines all the time, so I wouldn’t say goodbye to clickbait just yet. Why? Because it works.

Just look at the following cartoon by xkcd.com. If every history book had chapter titles like these then it would be a much more popular subject…


Cartoon by xkcd.com

How do you feel about clickbait? Love or absolutely hate it? Let me know below.

Thanks for reading! If you like this post then please share and comment below but play nice! Abusive comments may be removed.


  • ScienceDirect – Click bait: Forward-reference as lure in online news headlines
  • MediaPatterns -Modelling And Explaining Online News Preferences [PDF]
  • SSRN – Information Gaps for Risk and Ambiguity
  • JonahBerger.com – What Makes online Content Viral? [PDF]
  • The Atlantic – The Curiosity Gap Is Closing, Says Upworthy
  • Techcrunch – To Fight Clickbait, Facebook’s Feed Prioritizes What Surveys Say

He Writes A Clickbait Headline, You Won't Believe What Happens Next!
Article Name
He Writes A Clickbait Headline, You Won't Believe What Happens Next!
Why do clickbait headlines work? Why can't we resist clicking on something, even if we know we'll be disappointed? Introducing the psychology of clickbait.
Dermot Barry
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  1. LFCFan 3rd June 2016
    • Dermot Barry 3rd June 2016
  2. Naomi Lavelle 17th June 2016
    • Dermot Barry 21st June 2016

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