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Nonsense makes you smarter

One of the frustrating things about the internet is the clickbait. Those headlines that begin, 'Here's why...', 'This is how...', '12 things that'll make you...' On some level, you know you don't care what the answer is. You hate yourself for clicking. Yet click you do.

But could the same processes that make clickbait headlines so annoyingly effective show us something more noble about ourselves?

Travis Proulx and Steven Heine designed an experiment which suggests they do. They gave some participants a conventional short story. Stories aren’t so very different from clickbait: they set up a question and promise to give you the answer if only you keep reading. Who is the dead girl on the embankment, who killed her and why? Or just how will Mrs. Bennett marry off her daughters?

To others, the researchers gave something based on Kafka. Non sequiturs piled up until the narrative broke down. The text ended abruptly, leaving readers unable to make sense of what was happening.

This is the equivalent of the most exasperating articles. The ones where you scroll through twelve pictures and still don’t find what you’ve been promised.

After reading the stories, the volunteers received a test of their ability to spot patterns. Those who’d struggled through the Kafkaesque jumble performed much better. Why?

Life is a search for meaning, for answers to questions. Not (just) in a profound sense: why am I here, are there gods, what's my purpose; but in a mundane, everyday manner too.

When your boss passes you over for promotion, why did she do it? Did you insult her, is she sleeping with the person who got the job, is your work rubbish? When my daughter sploshes paint on the floor, did she want my attention (stop working in your study!), did she not know it was wrong, did she slip, or is she over-tired?

Our ability to formulate social questions and answer them is central to being human. We only have science – and science pages – because of the ‘holy curiosity’ which Einstein venerated.

What Proulx and Heine showed is that this curiosity, this drive for answers, is fungible. When we’re left frustrated on one task, unable to find meaning, we’re more motivated to look for it elsewhere.

The scientist’s desire to uncover the secrets in her test-tube might be sharpened by her failure to solve the crossword in the morning. My inability to understand why my daughter splattered the room with paint may well have driven me to spend more time in my study reading about curiosity. And those clickbait articles feed cynically on the same impulses.

Hopefully, this has been a satisfying read. But if it hasn’t, if the question it posed is unanswered, you should thank me: your frustrated curiosity may leave you motivated to solve still more important puzzles.

Chris Paley is the author of Unthink.


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