The Conflicting Science Behind Viral Headlines

This piece first appeared on February 6th in icrunchdata news

There has been some good news and more bad news of late for journalists. A study of the state of the news media by Michael Mandel, the former chief economist at Business Week, found that the number of reporters, correspondents and analysts in 2013 was on the upswing. Editors, on the other hand, keep disappearing. Although Mandel offers no explanation for why fewer traditional blue-pencilers are processing content before it goes online, one likely reason is the belief that technology can do it at least as well, if not better.

There has been some good news and more bad news of late for journalists. A study of the state of the news media by Michael Mandel, the former chief economist at Business Week, found that the number of reporters, correspondents and analysts in 2013 was on the upswing. Editors, on the other hand, keep disappearing. Although Mandel offers no explanation for why fewer traditional blue-pencilers are processing content before it goes online, one likely reason is the belief that technology can do it at least as well, if not better.

During the past decade, publishers and a growing contingent of marketers, have regularly relied on devices like keywords to enhance their content. By gaming search algorithms through various SEO tactics, they have sought to make it easier to find. But as audiences migrate to social media and search engines change the rules, content providers of all stripes have been forced to look elsewhere for new ways to entice readers.

2f20142f022fFacebookthumb1Enter clickbait headlines. These catchy and often upbeat titles are frequently framed as questions, or offer lists of easy-to-read tools, tips and advice. (e.g. -“12 Roles Essential to the Future of Content Marketing”) For critics, however, a more apt label might be bait-and-switch headlines, since such banners at times promise more than their accompanying articles deliver. Moreover, what is served up instead may actually be inaccurate or totally misleading. Yet that hasn’t deterred content producers who have utterly bought into the concept, since this style of rubric is decidedly viral. And they believe they have the science to prove it.

For instance, a survey of 7,000 New York Times articles by two professors from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that stories which evoke “high-arousal positive” emotions are, not surprisingly, more readily shared than those which produce “low-arousal, or deactivating” sentiments. Likewise, research published in the journal Social Influence determined that question headlines are, on average, as much as 175 percent more successful in generating readership than declarative captions.

For their part, so-called “listicles” are to the human brain what keywords are to algorithms. Cognitive scientists have shown that lists are able to garner attention because numbers more easily catch the eye in a field of words; because the mind prefers to process information spatially; and because lists save time and effort in delineating and categorizing key ideas. Such benefits are hard to refute, especially when a list-heavy site like Buzzfeed attracts an audience fourfold greater than the New York Times.

Nonetheless, what works for content providers may not necessarily serve the best interests of consumers. Headlines that belie the information within a story can leave readers frustrated, confused and ultimately distrustful of a source if it continually practices the technique. What is more, principles of cognition also raise doubts about the efficacy of lists.

Until recently, conventional scientific wisdom held that working memory – the mind’s ability to remember multiple bits of transitory information – leveled off at about seven items. But after applying more rigorous mathematical models, newer research has winnowed the number down to three or four. That makes it difficult for readers to take advantage of headlined articles that offer 10, 20 or 50 suggested solutions to a problem. And the task becomes still more daunting when trying to navigate several similar headlines on the same web site.

Recollection and, more importantly, comprehension suffer even more when addressing highly complex issues such as technology, marketing, management or finance. According to David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, relational complexity studies – which examine the difficulty of a task based on the number of variables – have repeatedly shown that fewer variables result in better decisions. Indeed, the optimal number of different thoughts the mind can effectively hold is just one.

Thus, with a viral headline you can, to paraphrase an old proverb, lead a reader to an article, but you can’t make him comprehend it. That takes more than simply stringing together a series of ideas and adding a question mark. Rather, it requires crafting an irresistible header that introduces equally compelling and intelligible information, which can be a win-win for content providers and their audiences.

Article written by Howard Gross for icrunchdata news New York, NY