So how much did you hate that title just now? That, my friend, is what they call click-bait, pure and simple. As unwitting participants and harbingers of the modern world, we have created an endemic distraction environment that is both disappointing and infuriating. When scrolling through Facebook, even I disappoint myself by way of where my cursor wanders. The sad truth is that click-bait works, no matter how aware of it we become. How much do you honestly care about the “What happens next…” of 99.999% of articles out there? After clicking on one of those links to an ad-ridden article have you ever later reflected that the experience bettered you in any way? I doubt anyone has, or at least a very small (trending to zero) percentage of the time.
Why does click-bait work so well? I’ll leave out most of the talk about dopamine release, but what it really comes down to is that humans like to gamble. We get pleasure from rewards, like an interesting video or article, and when you only get that reward an unpredictable fraction of the time your brain goes bat-shit-crazy for more of that stimulus; standard addiction phenomenon. The next time you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through your newsfeed clicking at every “Oo shiny!” moment, just remember that the only thing separating you from that old lady playing 24-hour slots at the local bar is that you don’t stand to make any money.
Now let’s go on a bit of a tangent so that I may indulge my own theories. What are the things we click on most? That’s easy, cute animals and lists! But why? Things like this are hard to measure so let us do what all megalomaniacs do; take personal speculation for truth. Humans love both babies and cute animals by natural evolutionary instinct. This was likely a driving force for our ancestors when domesticating animals. This trait was quickly selected for and made ubiquitous in the surviving populations due to the massive advantages of domestic animals in early human life. Liking cute animals is no fault of our own, it’s just genetics so don’t feel bad about clicking on cute hedgehog pictures. The other titan of internet drivel is lists! We are innately lazy creatures so the concept of a list is an excellent shortcut to avoid exerting too much mental effort. Much less reading is required and, more importantly, much less cognitive processing because we need not do any meaningful analysis of content. All the information presented to us is already placed in order of importance or relevance by some arbitrary source and grading scheme.
As a whole, distraction is hardly our fault. If you need a scapegoat then biology is always right there, waiting to take the fall. It’s constantly inappropriately distributing awards and predisposing us towards interests that mass media companies can take advantage of in order to bolster their ad revenues.