You can’t go on the internet without stumbling into “clickbait” — those annoying yet tantalizing articles that you aren’t looking for, but that are designed to entice you to click on a link and see, for example, how “unrecognizable” some ’80s TV star is now.
If you pay attention to clickbait (and of course you shouldn’t, but you can’t really help it, now can you?) you notice that there are definite patterns to it. The headlines for many of the clickbait pieces advertise something that is supposedly “shocking” or “jaw-dropping,” but a lot of them — say, 50 percent — also feature numbers. As in “6 reasons why your retirement planning is doomed” or “7 signs revealing that your boss actually hates your guts.” Today’s MSN website page, from which the above photo is taken, includes a bunch of sports-related clickbait, and numbers are prominent.
Obviously, the clickbait brigade thinks numbers are likely to lead to clicks. Why?
The article “Why We Respond Emotionally to Numbers: 7 Ways to Use the Power of Numbers in Your Designs” — which itself has a clickbait-like title — argues that humans respond viscerally and subconsciously to numbers. Even numbers, for example, are supposed to reflect feminine qualifies, while odd numbers are purportedly masculine. Numbers also are associated with luck and with religion. More basically, many games, especially those where you gamble, involve numbers. Obviously, numbers must have a deep intuitive appeal for homo sapiens, even those who didn’t like math class.
In the case of clickbait, though, I think it is more than that. People on the internet are typically in a hurry, and clickbait by definition is something that you’re not actually trying to find. Numbers in the headlines signal clear limits on the amount of time you’re going to need to spend to check out that provocative clickbait. Typically the number in the headline is below 10, encouraging you to think that even if the article is a colossal waste of time, at least you’ll figure that out quickly. The fact that there are only 5 reasons to believe that the cast of Hogan’s Heroes was cursed might just tip the balance and cause you to move that mouse and cursor and click away.