Clickbait and the Cognitive Neuroscience of Decision Making

FEM Inc., Neuroscience

Have you noticed the trends in headlines? Sometimes it feels like if I see one more “weird trick” or “you’ll never believe” my eyes might roll right into the back of my head. Publishers and content-marketers started using these phrases ad-nauseum because they worked – when people saw them they were intrigued and wanted to know what was behind the curtain. But the more they are used, especially for low-quality content, the less they work. And that seems to be an endless cycle on the internet. People come up with a clever way to intrigue users, everyone starts using it, it stops working, and people look for the next strategy.

It turns out the roots of this cycle can be traced to changes in our brains when we make decisions and then evaluate the outcomes.

Making decisions is a complex business. At any given time we are presented with a myriad of options and using the information at our disposal, we make a choice. This is especially true when it comes to the internet, where we are constantly bombarded with information, options, and choices.

However, before the decision is made, we are constantly  and unconsciously making predictions about what those choices may yield. These predictions and our subsequent evaluations of outcomes are represented physically by neural activity in specific regions of the brain like the ventral striatum.  The predictions guide our current decisions and the evaluations help to guide our decisions in the future.

Image of the human Striatum. Source:

If you’re a publisher or app developer, users could be using any of the information present, from the thumbnail, to the site, to the location on the page. However, in the end if you want people to explore your site more thoroughly and to look more deeply at your content, it’s about making those options appealing to a given user – tapping into what the user is likely to think will be rewarding. And that’s precisely what “click-bait” does. It’s about finding the images that make the most appealing promise to the user on a subconscious level.

But there’s a catch. The same neural systems that respond immediately to those promises learn over time. If the perceived promise of a thumbnail or the headline associated with it, isn’t met – the associated stimuli, be it the text, the image, or simply the location on the page, will lose some of their predictive value. This occurs at a biological level.

Screenshot 2015-04-13 15.18.58

Note the image to the right from a seminal study by Wolfram Schultz, Peter Dayan and Read Montague – it shows the real time response of dopamine neurons in rodent brains when a) they receive a reward, b) when they expect a reward and get it and c) when they expect a reward and don’t get it. In panel c, note that after the “predicted reward” response, we see a subsequent decreased firing because of that negative surprise. 

That critical difference – between what we expect and what we actually get is referred to in the literature as “prediction error” – and we learn from that error signal. The importance of these prediction error signals for guiding decision-making in a variety of contexts has been shown repeatedly in humans: [12, 3, 4When the activation is positive (when we are delighted by something being better than we expected), the activity in regions like the ventral striatum in response to the original stimulus (like a thumbnail or brand) will be just a bit higher the next time we see it and we’ll be more likely to choose it. However, when the activation is negative, the activity in those same regions will get lower.

This means that every time promises aren’t kept, the predicted value is diluted a bit.  When this happens repeatedly, it goes to zero. This is a highly likely mechanism for “ad” or “banner-blindness.” Over time – users have learned that the options that are in the banner space and other often-used advertising real estate, are rarely worth looking into. And it’s the reason that some of those headlines that seemed so intriguing a year or so ago might have started to look less appealing.

Short sighted optimization on headlines, thumbnails, and location can bring returns for a while – but users are smart. If these strategies don’t deliver on the promise they will stop working over time. Our brains are remarkable organs and anything that repeatedly fails to provide real value will eventually be filtered out. In the long-run, any sustainable model has to be one that keeps it’s promises.  

That’s why from the beginning, as a company we have always made understanding engagement beyond the click a central part of what we do – because the only way to get off the treadmill of constantly finding the new hook is to give users what they really want.

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  1. Government policymakers seem as confused about this subject, as are advertising executives. A vicious battle is being fought between chronic pain patients and Drug War backers, over a promise-of-real-value issue in medicine: Patients with pain, derive real value from pain-relieving drugs such as hydrocodone. People seeking a euphoric feeling (e.g., a sense that urgent matters are not urgent or require no exercise of responsibility), derive no real value from the same drugs.

    US health policy is in a state of utter confusion, because policy makers do not distinguish the difference between idleness (not working) and painlessness (not hurting). It is entirely reasonable that people who abuse drugs to feel pleasure, stop feeling the pleasure, and that people who use the same drugs to relieve pain, experience relief of the pain. Despite this obvious fact, and despite decades of supporting evidence, US drug policy continues to insist that 100 million voters with pain, must be inconvenienced, to protect an annual 3 thousand drug abusers from killing themselves with intentional or accidental overdoses of drugs. Politically, this policy is unsustainable, because the 3000 who kill themselves, are dead and no longer vote, whilst the 100,000,000 are angry, and would cast a vote against the Drug War, if given the opportunity to do so. Nevertheless, mass media continue to circulate TV programs and films, in which undercover narcotics cops are portrayed as heroes, and in which programs, sick people with diseases that cause pain, never appear.

    The big danger for media companies, in following each other’s lead, is that of getting so completely out of touch with their customer base, that they do not comprehend why those customers look at the content, that their companies create. In a world of social media, the entry barriers to discussion of any new idea, are shrinking. Content that customers find irrelevant, will be efficiently ignored.

  2. Alex Gurevich

    This is fascinating! I will never click on a cheesy headline online the same way again 🙂

  3. Bree hanson

    So this explains why looking bad in dating profile pictures has always worked to my advantage! Great article!


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