It may soon be disappearing from your Facebook feed, but in the nick of time, psychologists have swooped in to announce that clickbait — the shamelessly curiosity-stoking headlines that promise readers they Won’t Believe What Happens Next — may have a shot at redemption. Use your powers for good, they said. Reinvent yourself. You may have a bad rap, but you can still do something positive in this world.
Specifically, they argued, it may be possible to harness the same phenomenon that makes clickbait work so well — human curiosity — and apply it to situations that encourage people to make healthier choices. In a presentation earlier this week at the American Psychological Association annual meeting, a team of researchers explained the results of their field study testing the concept. They taped trivia questions to the elevators, next to messages directing people to the answers in a nearby stairwell — and people took the stairs. They wrote cards bearing the first part of a joke, left them in grocery-store produce aisles, and printed the punch line on the closures of fruit and vegetable bags; lo and behold, people bought more veggies. In each case, the urge to know the answer, or finish the joke, led people toward the healthy behavior 10 percent more frequently over the course of the study period.
“Evidently, people really have a need for closure when something has piqued their curiosity,” study author Evan Polman, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, said in a statement, likening his results to the curiosity-gap strategy that publishers often use in their headlines: Give people just enough to spark their interest, and then make them work for the rest. “They want the information that fills the curiosity gap, and they will go to great lengths to get it.” Or, to translate the study findings into clickbait parlance, Here’s the One Weird Trick to Get People to Exercise and Eat Better. It Will Blow Your Mind.