The Science And Psychology Behind Viral Articles In Your Social Feeds

Last Updated: January 16, 2020

A symphony of psychological triggers orchestrated a chemical soup in your brain and within a split-second signalled the amygdala (part of your brain that performs emotional processing) to sound the alarm in your hypothalamus (brain’s command center). It activated and synchronized your nervous system, muscle fibres and bone structure – finally instructing your finger to click or tap on THIS headline. Only to find this:

You clicked.

Because of fear. Because your “information gap” was exploited (sounds kinda dirty, doesn’t it?). Because we’re wired this way. Savvy, but not always ethical, marketers are using this knowledge to control your mind and your behaviour, following this formula: Information gap > Promise of a Relief > Quick Win.

Exploiting the Information Gap

Maybe we can blame Facebook and Twitter for the endless uprising of meme-style headlines that get shared like crazy and pollute our social feeds. They are a symptom of our ever diminishing attention span and increasing speed of content decay.

To battle this, marketers have to work harder, faster and utilize techniques from psychology, sociology and neuroscience in order to capture a fragment of your attention. Unfortunately, this often results in manipulative practices. Exploiting the Information Gap is one of those.

Simply put, when we come across something new that we don’t have knowledge of or experience with, an information gap is formed.

This piques our curiosity. And that’s where we depart for the dark side.

fMRI studies show that our curiosity follows the shape of an inverse U, meaning that we are most engaged when we know a little about the subject, but not too much – so devious headline writers will aim to hit the peak of that curve by raising a question but not answering it. This creates tension and couples curiosity with social anxiety, or fear. Fear of missing out, or FOMO for the initiated :)

But wait! There’s more!

Promise of a Relief

Ah, but there is a solution!

The gap has been created and now the battle for your mind has shifted about 20 characters to the right (crazy, hey?).

Split-second later than where we started, we now face a cognitive dilemma – best illustrated in an experiment called The Trolley Problem.

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks, heading straight for five people tied up there. You’re standing next to a lever. If you pull the lever, the trolley will switch to a different track. Unfortunately, there is one person tied up on that track! You only have two options: 1) do nothing and the trolley kills five people on the main track or 2) pull the lever and the trolley kills the one person on the side track. What would you do?

In our case, we can either choose to move on with our day or click on the headline. Thanks, Brain.

Fortunately, the marketer behind the headline is going to help us. By providing a chocolate-covered, cocaine-laced, diamond-encrusted lever for us to pull. Usually taking the form of something like “You’ll never believe what happens next!” – priming our stress response for action and karate-chopping our omission bias. Polishing the top of that inverse U-curve that is our curiosity and firing up our brain’s emotional signal processing [how our brain processes emotional signals].

This often tips our cognitive scale… so we sacrifice the one guy (in other words, our attention) for the reward on the other side of the click.

And that too is devilishly engineered.

The Quick Win

You’ll often land on something that looks like an Roman orgy for your eyes. We’re immediately rewarded for the action of clicking with a visual feast.

It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. That could be because our sense of vision accounts for two thirds of the electrical activity in the brain (while our eyes are open), something to the tune of 2 billion of the 3 billion firings per second. [geek out here]

Seeing is also WAY faster then reading (Seriously. I can’t even believe you got this far) so where you land will often have many images, arranged in one of two ways: post-wide and vertically long OR screen-dominant where you have to click a button to see the next image. Each image also acts as a reward and promises more – that’s why you’ll often see counters like “1 / 25 photos” or “page 2 / 3”.

However, text or image doesn’t matter. The engineering behind the design is meant to be be easily consumable and to keep you moving. Moving further down the page. That’s why you’ll often see bigger text, smaller columns and article-wide images. It’s meant to make you feel like you’re accomplishing something (“I already read half the page!”) and using the science of quick wins, keep you riding the hijacked attention train.

Because further you move down the page – the more exposed you get to banners, sponsors and advertisements.

That is the fuel of the marketing mind-control engine. Want to see a perfectly executed example on BuzzFeed?

Dumbing down of a generation

So, why do we fall pray to this so easily, and what does it all mean?

Well, we’re often caught at a vulnerable part of our attention cycle. Likely after work, before bed or during a break when we have little left in our attention tank, so all we want is some quick entertainment. To feel like we’ve “read” something. To feel like we didn’t miss out. To have something to add to the conversation the next morning.

We know what’s on the other end will probably be of little practical value. But maybe it’s the break that our brain needs from a 24/7 news and content cycle on top of work and life responsibilities.

But… I invite you think just a bit further down this road.

If we are paying for shitty content with our attention – we have less to give to things that require deeper thinking, reasoning and concentration. We have less to give to creation of meaningful work.

This creates a vicious cycle of more attention-hijacking techniques, higher volume of meaningless content and marginalization of good journalism and writing.

– But there is something you can do. –

Vote with your attention. Vote with your clicks. Now that you know the science behind these headlines, be judicious what you do with your attention. You only get so much of it a day.

While researching for this article, I came across a website that makes this whole issue crystal clear. I give you Headlines Against Humanity – developed by CentUp, a platform that pairs content with social causes, where both the content producer and a charity of your choice get a few cents of your money (however much you choose to donate). Kind of like TOMS shoes, but for content.

I will be interviewing Len Kendall, founder of CentUp for an upcoming 26k podcast (iTunes | Stitcher) so tune in for that :)

In the meantime, I’m curious. What do you think about the purveyors of such headlines such as ViralNova, Upworthy and their clones?