From clickbait to transcendent meaning

This evening the weather was perfect for reading outside, and that’s what we were doing, enjoying the rustling leaves overhead, the trickle of water from our little fountain, and the antics of four of our cats, when my phone gave a beep. It was a message, in Messenger, from one of my neighbors. The message said, “Look who died, in an accident I think you know him…? so sorry,” with a couple of emojis and a link.

Naturally, I was terribly curious. I didn’t click the link, though. The message looked very like the sort of clickbait my mother-in-law had recently gotten from a friend’s hacked account, and I expect my neighbor is better with punctuation. Also, upon reflection, I also realized that this neighbor and I haven’t had that many conversations, so she doesn’t “think” I know various people. Rather, for any given person, she either knows for sure or doesn’t have a clue. Sure enough, a few minutes later she sent another message – don’t click the link, because she’d been hacked.

My big project for the past year or so has been studying the ways that people can make messages and ideas more dramatic and impactful. These techniques are familiar to anyone who’s encountered clickbait, but they’re also used in social movements, ranging from those encouraging us to broaden our ethical sensibilities (like caring more about nature) to those pushing us to contract them (as in mass violence, where leaders might want us to make war against people we’ve known and liked for years).

I’ve come up with five families of techniques that are commonly used to make information more exciting and interesting. They’re generally the same things that make art more visually interesting and music more emotionally moving, but they’re used here as ideas rather than part of the physical world. I’m sure I’ll write more about them here after I’ve found a good way to publish my work, but for now, I’ll just note that two of these techniques seem to me to be especially powerful.

The first is the contrast between existence and non-existence, that is, referring to birth or, especially, death. Research has found that making people think about death can make them more anxious and distressed (naturally!). Beyond that, though, sharp contrasts attract our attention, and as contrasts go, this is one of the sharpest.

The second is the realization or discovery of something you care about that was previously hidden from you, giving you what some psychologists call an “aha!” moment. Neuroscientists have found that moments like that activate the reward system in your brain, giving you a boost of dopamine that feels good.

The clickbait message I received from my neighbor pushed those two buttons exactly. Someone I may know has died, and I’ve been left hanging about who it is, so I want to resolve that uncertainty. If I press the link, the world will make a bit more sense than it does right now, and I won’t keep wondering and worrying.

Earlier today, though, I was reading famous speeches and looking for the ways my five families of techniques were used in the juicy bits, the parts that remain vivid in public memory decades, sometimes even centuries, later. And the thing that struck me was that the Gettysburg Address used these very same techniques!

After the Battle of Gettysburg, in which more than 40,000 people from both sides of the U.S. Civil War had been killed, Lincoln travelled to the site in Pennsylvania to dedicate a cemetery on the battlefield. In his brief but moving speech, he evoked the ideals that had inspired the founding of our country, and his words sought to transmute the mass slaughter of thousands into a new beginning:

“…It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

See how he did that? He talks about death – of soldiers, and potentially of the United States – and he asks his listeners to find a meaning hidden in the horror of war, a new birth. The shock of death is followed by the reassurance of its significance.

So there you have it. Whether you’re running for office, trying to change the world, or designing your very own unscrupulous malware campaign, now you know more about how to get people’s attention. Have fun with it…

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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