How long do you think people spend reading your article’s headline? Ten seconds? Five seconds?
Try 1.8 seconds.
According to research reported in Fast Company, the average person reads about six words of a headline. Since the average reading speed for an adult is around 200 words per minute, that means most readers spend under two seconds reading your article’s headline.
That’s why headlines are crucial. They have an amazingly short span of time to grab the reader’s attention and draw them into your story.
But what draws readers in, exactly? What makes a good headline “sticky?” Why does one headline grab attention, while another one totally fails? I’ve explored the conceptual idea of sticky headlines in my 6-15-7 rule article — now let’s dive into the biology.
As an entrepreneur with a neuroscience degree from Johns Hopkins, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and learning about the brain. And I think there are some big lessons from brain science which can explain why some headlines fail, and others dominate.
Let’s look at the neuroscience of headlines — how they impact the brain, what makes certain headlines salient, and what lessons you can apply to your own blog posts and Medium articles.
At a Glance
In the big scheme of perception, 1.8 seconds is a vanishingly short span of time.
In neuroscience, there’s a saying that “nothing interesting happens before 100ms.” That’s an acknowledgment that it takes about 1/10 of a second for all the basic processes associated with vision — photoreceptors firing in the retina, the optic nerve transmitting a signal, etc — to complete, and for your brain to register that it’s seen something new.
So if you see a new word or picture, your brain doesn’t even know you’ve seen it for about 100ms.
Once you’ve seen a word, the brain still needs to do the basic processing required to read it. This adds more time.
For written language, the total seeing/perceiving package takes about 130ms per word. So, for a six-word headline, you’re spending 130 * 6 = 780ms just on seeing the words with your eyes, getting that data into your brain, and performing the very basic function of reading them.
That’s literally a glance.
And at that point, all you’ve done is physically seen and read the words. You still have to do all the neural work we would normally call “thinking” — evaluating the headline in the context of other things you’ve read/your own interests, considering whether you want to know more, making a decision to click through or move on, chasing away intruding thoughts about lunch, etc.
The issue is that now, you only have about one second left.
How does the brain process a headline’s content in such a short time?
Put simply, it cheats. In one second, readers are not carefully considering anything about your headline. They’re making snap judgments, led by very specific neural processes and areas in the brain.
As a marketer, understanding those processes and brain areas can be very helpful. Let’s look at two which are crucial for great headlines.
Fear, Food, and Fighting in the Amygdala
Again, it’s hard to do much higher-level thinking in one second. Luckily, the human brain has a specialized area that deals with fast, thought-free decisions.
The amygdala is an area in a deep part of the brain’s temporal lobe. It’s one of the brain areas most responsible for handling emotion. Lots of sensory areas send information there, and the amygdala has one primary role — figuring out the emotional salience of what you’re experiencing.
Is this scary? Can I eat this, and will it be tasty? Has this hurt me before? Is it about to hurt me now? These are all things the amygdala helps to determine.
And it does this job very quickly — often so fast that it’s processed a stimulus before you’re consciously aware that you’ve seen something.
This makes a lot of evolutionary sense. If a saber-toothed cat leaps out at you, you don’t want to waste a lot of time thinking “Hmm, is that a cat? I wonder what kind?” You want to respond quickly with the appropriate reaction — fear.
Because it works very fast, the amygdala is one brain area that can get involved in processing a headline, even if it only has about a second to do its job.
So what gets the amygdala’s attention? What causes it to send the rest of the brain the message “stop and focus on this thing you’ve just seen”?
For one, fear. That’s likely why I’ve noticed that Medium headlines that have a slight element of fear or anxiety tend to do well. It’s also why clickbait is effective, even if it’s a terrible pox on the Internet and we all know we shouldn’t click on it.
When you read a headline that makes you a little anxious, that’s the amygdala flagging it as a potential threat that you should analyze in more detail.
The amygdala also responds strongly to suggestions of a reward. This is likely why marketing words like Free, Win, Best, Easy and New perform so well in headlines.
Again, this has an evolutionary purpose. If you’re walking through the woods and see some tasty berries (or an attractive potential mate), you want your brain to notice these things and quickly point them out to you. The amygdala is great at doing just that, for berries and blog posts alike.
And finally, it also responds to stimuli with a lot of emotional content. That’s why concepts like “struggle”, “failure”, etc. also do very well in headlines.
Speaking to the Amygdala
As a marketer, what can you do to get the amygdala involved? Make your headlines emotionally salient.
Headlines that provoke a little anxiety grab readers’ attention and make them pause long enough to learn and process more. As I’ve shared elsewhere, headlines like “This Is Not a Person. But She Is a Threat” have done well for me since they suggest something scary and get the reader’s attention.
Headlines suggesting a reward tend to do well, too. The reward doesn’t have to be explicitly for the reader, either. I wrote an article titled Anatomy of a $650 Medium Post. It’s done very well, earning almost as much as the actual $650 post I wrote it about.
I think a big reason for this is that the title suggests a specific, monetary gain. This engages the amygdala’s reward circuitry and makes the brain pause to see if it might, too, be able to get that same reward/gain. I’ve spotted some berries in the woods, and when you read my headline, your brain wonders if it can eat those yummy berries, too.
It’s how I originally found out about Medium, actually. I saw Tim Denning’s excellent article “How I Made $11,000 from Writing in 30 Days” in a random Twitter digest. Normally I scroll right by these, but Tim’s reference to a specific monetary reward was enough to make me stop, click through, and start contributing to the platform. Thanks, Tim. And thanks, amygdala!
Words that suggest a challenge, fight, or difficulty also engage the amygdala. How often do you find yourself clicking through to a Medium article about someone’s struggle, failure, or challenge?
Partly, these articles are humanizing and naturally compelling. But the emotional content of headlines that reference a fight or struggle also engages the amygdala, causing you to stop and consider the headline in more detail.
This probably draws on the evolutionary benefits of understanding strong emotions. When someone else is speaking, the amygdala is constantly processing questions like “Are they angry? Are they going to attack me?” This same tendency makes the amygdala very sensitive to emotional content, even if it’s coming from the text in a headline and not a potential attacker.
So if you want to get the amygdala involved — and take advantage of the fact that it can do a lot in one second — you should do a few things.
Include some element of worry or concern in your headline, if it’s appropriate to your article. Is there a risk the reader should be aware of? Should they stop doing something? Is there a disruption taking place in a company or industry? All these concepts engage the amygdala and grab the reader’s attention.
Likewise, is there something to be gained? Can the reader make more money, win in some way, be successful, etc? These concepts — centering on gains and rewards — are good to include in headlines, and make them much stickier. Whenever possible, include a specific number or another reward.
And finally, include emotionally salient words and concepts whenever you can. Don’t write neutral headlines, or ones loaded with corporate jargon. Instead, get at the emotional meat of a topic. Did something hurt you? Did you face a fight? Or conversely, were you overjoyed to learn about something? Did something thrill you?
These emotionally-charged concepts also engage the amygdala and lead to stickier headlines. And as a bonus, sharing your big successes and defeats also tends to lead to compelling articles and more read time than emotionally neutral, jargon-filled, generic ones.
Going Too Far
I’ll throw in one caveat here, though. When using emotions in your headline, a little goes a long way. Throwing in some words like “defeat” or “big win” is great, but writing a headline that screams “Read This or You’ll DIE” takes the emotion too far.
Why? Instead of subtly engaging the amygdala, it clues the reader in to look at your article with an extremely critical eye, as potential clickbait to be avoided. I don’t know the neural correlates of the B.S. detector, but it’s definitely there in your readers. Don’t make it angry.
I like to think about this as the difference between the subtle feelings of anger, disgust, etc. that build up during a good documentary film (think Supersize Me) versus the moment in a horror movie where a creepy doll jumps out from behind a door and murders the protagonist.
A good headline is like the documentary — subtly using emotions to make its point, but mostly sharing fact-based, powerful content. A bad headline is like the horror movie doll attack — it’s so over the top that readers find it startling, but more absurd (or annoying) than engaging or thought-provoking.
Patterns, Patterns Everywhere
Beyond emotion, there’s one more brain quirk that I want to cover since it relates strongly to good headlines. That’s the brain’s remarkable ability to find (or even create) patterns.
If your brain had to process everything you saw as a totally new stimulus, it would quickly get overloaded. There’s a ton of information flowing through your world at any given moment, and it’s impossible (and would be crippling) to think about all of it in detail.
So what does the brain do instead? Again, it cheats. Specifically, it looks for patterns that help it quickly make sense of the world without needing much higher-order processing.
Think about this in the context of driving. When you’re a new driver, you’re constantly thinking about every aspect of the experience. Which thing do I push to turn on my blinker? Is that a red light ahead, and where do I need to stop? I want to turn — where do I look? It’s exhausting, and new drivers need to focus all their attention on the road just to (usually) avoid crashing.
Fast forward a few years, though, and you can drive around — for better or worse — without paying much conscious attention at all. Each time you see a red light or a stop sign, you don’t have to think about it and say “Stop. Hmm, what does that mean? Oh, I should stop the car here.” It becomes automatic.
That’s because your brain has learned all kinds of patterns. Stop signs are red, usually appear at intersections, etc. When you see one and your brain has learned these patterns, you don’t really need to think about what you’ve seen. As soon as you see a stop sign, you know at a nearly unconscious level that you’re going to have to stop the car.
At that point, the stimulus barely even matters. Someone could change the stop sign to read “DROP” and keep the red color and shape, and most people would probably glance at it, stop at the intersection, and not even notice that a word was changed. At that point, you’re not really even processing what you’re seeing — you’re just following a pattern, which your brain has helpfully identified and learned for you.
Think I’m wrong? Just try driving in a new country, where you have to drive on the opposite side of the road, there are different road signs, the cars look different, etc. You’ll find that it requires a lot more thought — and is much more exhausting — than driving around your own neighborhood.
What does this have to do with headlines? In the same way that the brain learns patterns to “automate” physical skills like driving, it also learns patterns to simplify things like reading and processing text.
In both cases, much of this happens in the parietal lobe and in the hippocampus of the temporal lobe. These regions of the brain handle pattern recognition (among many other things), both for learned skills and for functions like vision and language.
Following patterns lets the brain cheat by not really processing everything you’re seeing. In the literature, these little hacks and cheats are called “heuristics.” They let you process information in a “good enough” way, and avoid the fatigue and attention requirements of having to fully process everything you’re seeing and experiencing.
It’s part of how the brain can process a headline in one second — often it’s not really seeing the stimulus as something new, but finding a familiar pattern and using that to get a fast, general sense of what the headline is saying.
Patterns for Fun and Profit
There are two ways marketers can leverage this. One is to conform to it.
As I’ve shared before, headlines that follow a familiar pattern do surprisingly (annoyingly) well. “How I Learned to ______”, “8 Ways to Be More Productive by _______”, “I Increased My Earnings By $1K Per Month Through _______” and headlines that follow other predictable patterns are easy to process since they engage with the brain’s natural tendency to seek patterns.
If you’ve read and enjoyed ten articles that follow the pattern “I Increased My Passive Income By ______”, you’re probably going to enjoy reading an 11th.
By following these well-worn patterns, you’re allowing your readers’ brains to apply a heuristic and immediately understand what your article is about without really having to fully process it. This can be a great way to communicate your article’s point in a way that is easy to understand in the one second of attention you have.
The other way to leverage these heuristics is to violate them. If you’re a comfortable English speaker and I say “Water, water everywhere…”, you can probably fill in “…but not a drop to drink.” These kinds of idioms are a staple of language, and most speakers of a given language can recognize thousands of them. They represent the same kinds of familiar patterns that our brains are used to learning.
As neuroscientist Roger Dooley points out on his website, Neuromarketing, violating these well-worn idioms can lead to engaging headlines. If I wrote a headline like “Water, Water Everywhere But You Can’t Have a Drink” (maybe about water politics in the Central Valley of California), your brain would think it knew exactly what to expect. It would make a prediction from the first few words of the headline.
When my headline violates that prediction, the brain does a double-take. This violation of expectations engages the hippocampus and also lights up the brain’s error detection circuitry. The brain hates to be surprised by a stimulus, so when it is, it forces you to pause for a moment and see what went wrong.
This pause leads your readers to consider your headline in more detail, and to think about it at a higher level, rather than treating it as a familiar pattern and moving right over it. Dooley provides some great examples of idioms you can modify for your own headlines, like “Fight Fire With ______” and “Money Doesn’t Grow On ______”.
You can also play with the format of familiar headline patterns. Articles with a headline like “How I Followed 8 Simple Productivity Tips and Lost Everything” turn the normal pattern of a how-to headline on its head. You’d want to read that article, right? Just seeing a pattern violated is often enough to make you stop, read in more detail, and click through.
The Brain is Your Friend
If you’re a marketer writing headlines (or email subject lines, YouTube titles, or any other short piece of text that needs to grab attention), realize that you have very little time to get a reader’s attention. By the time your reader’s brain has performed the basic steps of reading your text, you only have about one second left for them to process it.
By engaging the amygdala, you can make this second count. Any emotionally-charged language or concept will get the amygdala involved. Include a little element of fear/concern in your headline, evoke ideas of gains/rewards (especially with specific numbers), or just include emotionally evocative words instead of boring, corporate ones.
Recognize the power of patterns, too. The hippocampus and regions of the parietal lobe are great at recognizing and processing patterns. Appeal to them by following a comfortable, familiar pattern, like “5 Ways to Do _______”.
Or, shock them into attention by starting out with a familiar pattern and then violating it. This makes the brain pause over the headline to see what went wrong in its predictions and gives your reader a few crucial extra seconds to consider your article in more detail.
The brain can seem murky, complex and confusing. But as a marketer, it’s actually your friend. By understanding and appealing to specific brain regions, you can write killer headlines that grab your reader’s attention, pull them in, and make the most of your 1.8 seconds in the spotlight.