How clickbait can manipulate your mind and performance in 2020.

By Paul Milano


We have got one short life.

We can either do things we value or spend our time chasing pleasures that leave us feeling empty in the long-term.

I mean, you won’t miss out on life by skipping headlines like this….

We need to use common sense. It is not as if the dog sang a lullaby and put the baby to sleep.

We know how affectionate dogs are. It must have done something cute. But the temptation to know is designed in such a way that you can’t help but click the headline.

In this particular case, the baby doesn’t cry. As it turns out, it was time to change the diaper, so the dog hands over a fresh diaper to the baby’s mom.  Kind of cool, but probably not worth taking you off course on what you were doing.

The misleading title is just forged to evoke an extreme emotion.

For your mind, a “cute” headline like can be as appealing as sex or a new toy to a toddler. We will explain later.

This type of clickbait content feels good in the moment but doesn’t make you happy in the long run. Your mind in many ways reacts to it like a drug.

If you are still wondering, content that either doesn’t deliver on its headline’s promise or is intentionally very misleading is known as clickbait.

Now in the case above, it is relatively harmless.

It wasted a few minutes of your time, but that’s about it.

However, these type of headlines can and are ever more frequently being used to manipulate you.

With the goal being to either make you believe something that’s not true, or taking a very minor or small issue and blowing it out of proportion.

If you have money, you can actually hire firms to spread misinformation and lies for you online.

Around the globe, politicians, parties, governments, and other clients hire what is known in the industry as “black PR” firms to spread lies and manipulate online discourse.

Craig Silverman

This is where clickbait style content can get extremely dangerous and why you need to be aware so you don’t fall for it.

Why would they do this?

We will learn why below and show the tactics on how it came out, why it’s effective and why it’s important you know about this.

The Information Monster that is the internet:

As you can see from this image, internet publishing has overtaken print media in the past few years (with quite a dramatic drop in newspaper employment).

We are bombarded with an insane amount of information every minute. Google processes 63,000 searches per second!

The internet has created new business opportunities with social selling, e-commerce and creative platforms like YouTube. We also have within our reach the entirety of all human knowledge. That is the amazing part of it.

The downside of this is that with such an overwhelming amount of information, it can be harder to grab someone’s attention. This spawns off new outrageous tactics like clickbait to get you to turn your eyes toward something.

Technology is meant to push us forward but clickbait media pushes you in the opposite direction. It’s really targeting our prehistoric and “cave man” part of our brains When you click on a “jaw-dropping” headline that will “blow your mind” every ten minutes, your power to concentrate degrades gradually.

Imagine driving a car that breaks down every fifteen minutes. That wouldn’t be very good or get us very far? Now think of the last time you spent 15 minutes totally focused on one task without being distracted. You can see where we are going with this.

Why Do Companies use Clickbait?

In some ways they have too if they want to stay competitive. Because of how much information is within our reach, our attention spans can be pretty small. Traditional media companies are fighting for our attention in this digital world and because their revenue is largely based on ads they NEED you to view their content.

Journalism is increasingly a clickshare business. Editor-to-writer ratios, average time to publish, and budget per article are all plummeting. In their desperation for your attention, aaccountability for posting things that are factually correct has really gone out the window too.  

This is emphasized by the fact that there are also very few public editors left in journalism (whose job it is to police and investigate their own coverage). The NYT let their last one go in 2017. It’s now difficult to impossible to get anyone to listen to correction concerns or have any accountability for posting things that are accurate.

In short, media publishers need to amass as many views, likes, shares and comments as possible in order to generate their ad revenue.

To do this, they can either find authentic stories that move people or put some hyperbolic words in the headline to get easy clicks.

Authentic stories take time and effort to create. Real writing requires hours of research, reflection, interviews and sometimes travel. In a world where companies need as many clicks as possible doing this becomes not so profitable.

The Science of Clickbait: Your Brain’s Weakness

As annoying as clickbait is, it works for a reason. It uses human psychology and behavioral science to get a desired emotional response from the reader.

At the time of writing this my daughter is 17 months old. I’ve been reading about toddler development and how their brains at this age are basically in a prehistoric caveman like state. Instant gratification and wanting things now are all they know and when they don’t get it in 3 seconds or less, it’s tantrum time.

As we grow older, we learn how to control this better (hopefully) but this caveman part of our brain, that is easily distracted and wants thing right away never goes away.

We each have a distraction monkey, living in our brains who desperately wants to be entertained immediately and wants you to stop doing whatever is important.

That leads us into why clickbait, as much we know it is probably bad works so well. Here are the psychological reasons that make clickbait so successful.

First the author “manufactures” an extreme sentiment in your mind with a tempting headline.

Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, studies how social influence works and has published a bestseller on the subject.

He suggests that there are six human emotions that viral or social-friendly content creates:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Humor
  • Excitement
  • Inspiration
  • Surprise

If you take a look at almost any headline, its got at least one or a mix of these to peak your brain up.

Next we fall victim to the curiosity gap, which bothers us emotionally.

This is why many clickbait titles contain terms such as “secret”, “revealed”, “breaks silence”, “what they don’t tell you about..” and so on.

Logically, you probably know these articles are going to offer nothing of value, but your distraction monkey HAS to know.

Spoiler – certain foods like deli meat sandwiches are higher in calories then you might think. Truly life changing stuff on display here.  We chalk this type of clickbait just into the stupid and time wasting category.

Finally it’s the feeling of anticipation which completes the loop.

Anticipation is one of the core elements of clickbait. You don’t know whether the headline delivers on its promise, but you can’t wait to find out.

It is like you enter a restaurant and you can see the chefs preparing a fancy lobster dinner. Your mouth waters just at the sight of it.

For all you know, what you’re going to eat isn’t even a real lobster. But you just can’t wait to have it.

As a Stanford neuroscientist puts it,

“Dopamine is not about pleasure; it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself.”

 In fact, anticipation of the reward is better than being rewarded. So if the headlines on digital publications are authentic only half the time, it is more rewarding to your brain than if it is authentic all of the time.

Impact of Clickbait on Your Life

1. You Don’t Want Your Monkey to be in Control

Giving into temptations to read superficial content takes away your ability to focus. As much as you may get a brief dopamine spike of happiness each time you read one, at the end of the day, the only people benefiting from it are its owners.

Ark Markman, a psychology professor, suggests that learning what is going to happen next and when it is going to happen is an important function of our brain. So when you check clickbait content every few minutes, your brain learns to be distracted every few minutes. It seeks that dopamine hit you get when you satisfy the distraction monkeys craving and only make him stronger.

The worst part is that this damage is long-term and unless you make conscious efforts to regain your lost concentration, your mind will always be scattered.

2.) Do you want to allow yourself to be manipulated?

Here’s a real meme that was circulating the net a bit back, designed to change the way you think about something.

It tries to basically portray oil and gas as cleaner and better alternative then electric vehicles. Sponsored by those who want to keep the status quo and keep those oil revenues coming in.

Hilariously, and in true manipulative fashion, the top photo isn’t even a lithium mine. It’s a huge copper mine in Chile.

The bottom photo isn’t even close to what the oil sands in Alberta look like, which is one of the planets largest ongoing environmental disasters.

Now one of these meme’s on its own may not change your opinion, but it’s a compound effect. Seeing headlines or memes like this over and over (which is a tactic the creators use) will slowly and subtly manipulate you and likely change your opinion on something without you really knowing it.

This repeated exposure targeted with the techniques we saw above is the exact tactics used by firms trying to spread this type of misinformation.

“The aim is to get an emotional reaction from a person,” Bidun said in an interview. “If they read a comment, even [if they understand] that it was written by a bot, it could have affected them emotionally and it becomes more difficult for them to control themselves.”

Investigative reporter Vasil Bidun

Mission success for the organizations pushing this, they’ve recruited you to their cause.

This is where these types of tactics can become downright harmful and spread all sorts of nonsense.  Sadly, it is very effective and firms seemingly don’t care how far they go.

One firm promised to “use every tool and take every advantage available in order to change reality according to our client’s wishes.”

Craig Silverman

3. Impact on Productivity & Intelligence

It is a proven fact that only when the brain is calm and quiet, it produces alpha and gamma waves, the mental states responsible for mental coordination, alertness, enhanced perception and increased memory recall.

Typical headlines we read are designed to provoke the exact opposite emotions of this. Ever scroll through your news feed or Apple / Google news summaries? Count how many headlines get you angry or fired up. When we are distracted, our brain cannot produce these calming brain waves and we lose our ability to perform our best.

The rise of smartphones and social media tools has fragmented our attention into slivers. As a result, most people are engaged in shallow work as opposed to deep work.

Shallow work is low-value and consists of logistical style, non-cognitively demanding tasks performed when distracted. Deep work is done with unwavering attention, produces high value, is hard to replicate and pushes our cognitive abilities to their limit.

On top of this learning what we saw above, we know we can be misinformed about things in a deliberate and manipulative way. This impacts our own intelligence and analytical thinking. Spreading things around that are not factually true does not help the world progress in any way.

The combination of these two above ultimately then can have a big impact on our mental health as we find we aren’t progressing on the things that are truly important to us.

What’s the point of all this?

The point of all this is not to scare you or leave you worried.

Instead its to make you aware.

Aware of something that can seem relatively harmless but can overtime have a fairly large impact on you.

Whether it’s just slowing making you more distracted and less focused or worse, manipulating you to believe something that is simply untrue or far worse then it really is.

Neither of these will aid you on your quest to leave your legacy or become your best version of you.

There is simply way too much coming at us. In order to think clearly we need to be selective about who and what information get’s access to our brain.

“I don’t think people can realize how valuable they can be, if they use their time correctly” – Kevin Hart.



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