Over the last few years, we've all been at the mercy of hyperlinked article titles along the lines of, ‘This is the best news story ever!’ or ‘You’ll be astounded by what she says about these four superfoods’. In fact I can image most people sighing with resignation at the mere format of the title of this post. It’s a common sight to see these sorts of headlines primarily on the articles of Buzzfeed and the Huffington post, but also on the websites of the Washington post and the New York Times.
In the literature this sort of title is labelled as forward-referencing, (Blom & Hansen, 2015). In that the title refers to information yet to be disclosed. It is typical for a forward-referencing title to reveal little of the content necessary to gain an understanding of the key message in the article. It is important to understand two key ideas surrounding clickbait headlines, first of all the situation that created the need for them, and then the process behind them.
Blom and Hansen, (2015), conducted a study investigating Danish newspapers online pages, and primarily investigated the sorts of situations in which these headlines typically arise. They found that forward-referencing headlines were most common in commercial media without paywalls, which rely on ad revenue to make money. They argue that with people able to read an informative headline and move on, the page would receive a lower viewership and ad revenue will decrease, as typically clicks or ‘taps’ are used to measure the traffic on a webpage and determine how many people an advertisement will have access to.
Additionally they found that these headlines tended to feature in ‘news soft’ topics, namely lifestyle and Gadget themed articles, as demonstrated by figure 1. The difference between forward-referring headlines in hard news (News) and soft news (Sport, weather, lifestyle and Gadget) is statistically significant at the < 0.01 level.
Figure 1. Percentage of forward-referring headlines in the preliminary data set from tv2.dk (Blom and Hansen, 2015).
So while the need for some way of enticing people to not simply read the headline, but to click on the link to the actual web page, to allow the adverts to reach their audiences, what is it about forward-reference headlines that fulfil this role. Well, in their thesis, Claessens, (2015), argues that clickbait headlines utilise the curiosity inducing information gap coined by Loewenstein, (1994), and build upon in the paper by Golman & Loewenstein, (2014). The theory states that curiosity results from an information gap, defined as the gap between what one knows and what one would like to know. We as people are motivated to close this gap by experiencing high levels of curiosity when the gap is small, and therefore easily attainable.
This is utilised by forward-reference headlines by making a statement that creates this information gap, arouses curiosity which can only be satisfied by simply clicking the headline, and creating discomfort if we do not. While the research into whether clickbait headlined articles actually receive more page views has yet to be conducted, the groundwork for why we have to put up with those annoying adverts and links is there, and if as suggested more people do indeed click on them to satisfy that itching curiosity about those ‘seven easy organising tricks you’ll actually want to try’, then it looks as if they’ll be around to stay.
Blom, J. N., & Hansen, K. R. (2015). Click bait: Forward-reference as lure in online news headlines. Journal of Pragmatics, 76, 87-100.
Claessens, M., & (2015). Curiosity-inducing Communication: Hazardous Lure or Effective Motivator? Economic, M. A.
Golman, R., & Loewenstein, G. (2014). Curiosity, Information Gaps, and the Utility of Knowledge. Information Gaps, and the Utility of Knowledge (March 30, 2014).
Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological bulletin, 116(1), 75.