Click bait. The impossibly enticing headline. We love it the way fish love . . . whatever it is they love. (I’m not a fisherman.) Maybe like proverbial mice love the cheese in the trap. But the allure of click bait isn’t that visceral, like some leftover of evolution. It is intellectual, or at least cognitive. We bite on those juicy stories because they give us something our minds crave. I admit it—I feel the pull of those tabloid headlines when I’m standing in the check-out line, or scrolling to the bottom of a news feed. I think there are at least three reasons we love click bait.
- They tell us what we want to hear. Some people call this “confirmation bias.” We reach for and swallow these stories unchewed because they confirm our precious beliefs. Of course, the stories may (luckily) be true and actually lend support to our worldview, but to wolf them down like so many children of Chronos slowly corrupts our crucial ability to think critically. Still, the allure of stories that play our favorite ideological tunes is powerful.
- We’re suckers for sensational headlines and images. It’s why tabloids sell. We just have to know whether Angelina Jolie really had a bat-baby or whether that dolphin grew human arms! The possibility of the macabre and fantastical is magnetic. “Abraham Lincoln was a woman??!!”
- We forget that media outlets are businesses. If we kept this fact in mind, we would find those headlines far less appealing. Imagine the 19th century American villager titillated by the flashy, handsome snake-oil salesman who rolls into town. He looks impressive, and his claims are magical. But now imagine that same villager who later discovers that he was sold a bottle of sugar-water with no medicinal effects whatsoever. When that salesman rolls back through his town, his new skepticism shields him from the mesmerizing show. The bait no longer allures.
Consider two recent stories that generated plenty of clicks. One story explained how scientists have discovered genetic links between modern Lebanese and ancient Canaanites. The Canaanites were famous for being the unfortunate victims of ancient Israel’s attempts at genocide in Palestine—well-documented failures. But despite this readily available information, the typical headline read “Scientists Disprove the Bible.”
Another story exaggerated with equal flare. This one detailed how archaeologists found evidence for the burning of Jerusalem 2600 years ago. But “found some evidence for X” isn’t nearly as sexy as “proved X!” One headline read “Biblical Event Proven TRUE” and another actually announced this as proof of God’s existence!
So why do we love to click on these stories? Run each one through the three reasons above. Some people desperately WANT them to be true. Or the claims are so outrageous that we have to see if they’re real, like a carnival freak show. And most of us think of news outlets, scientists and religious folks as automatically worthy of trust, forgetting that the headline is probably the product of a business plan, rather than top-notch journalism.
How do we develop a healthy attitude of mild skepticism that will slow down our mouse button just enough to let a little evaluation squeeze into our media consumption process? For me, it came through trial and error. I bought enough snake oil and ate enough crow over the years that I became wary—wary enough to get some training and education to slow down my thinking a bit. Our brains are somewhat wired to do this:
But I know that I have to consciously discipline my mind to do this:
We have to work at slowing down our cognition enough to squeeze in this extra step. I confess that at least once, I shared an article on Facebook without even reading beyond the headline! (I’ve also shared a few “fake” things as a joke to see who would jump straight to acceptance.)
I should mention that you won’t get it right every time. You’ll get fooled occasionally, even if you’re careful. This happened to me just a couple weeks ago when I shared an article that looked totally unbiased, only to have a friend point out that the source, which was extremely biased, had “disguised” itself in the post. The goal should be to do our “due diligence” in thinking things over, passing judgment in the same circumspect manner you would want a judge to decide your own case. Have you seen a “click bait” headline recently? Share it in the comments.