What Does Psychology Have to Do with Creating Engaging Headlines?

According to Copyblogger, 8 of 10 people read your headline. But only 2 out of 10 will continue on and read the rest of your content.

Headlines matter. And most of us know this. That’s why there are countless articles and copywriting how-tos that explain what words work, which don’t, and how you can use them to get more of those 10 people to click and read what you have to say.

But why? Why does this word work when that one doesn’t? Why do certain tactics fail while others succeed — and why, as copywriters or content creators, is it often so hard to understand what made the difference?

It’s all about the psychology in play.


If you want to create engaging headlines, you need to understand what hooks the mind of a reader. It’s not enough to slap your great post or article with an accurate but plain label.

Even if someone wants to read about the “Two Ways to Better Your Financial Situation,” they’re unlikely to feel compelled to read your explanation of the two best and most efficient ways to improve their personal finances. It’s not engaging, and it doesn’t demand anyone’s attention.

But if you wrote, “Are You Missing Out on These Two Simple Ways to Guarantee Financial Success?” then you might have something.

Why? What makes the difference?

Take a moment to pause and consider what your audience faces every day. They fight to avoid being buried in a constant barrage of content on social media platforms, on their favorite websites, on news outlets, in their inboxes.

And it’s not bad content; in fact, quite a lot of it is actually good, relevant, thought-provoking, or in some other way valuable to your audience.

But that’s part of the problem. Everyone has 24 hours in a day to work, eat, sleep, spend time with family, to live — and American adults already spend 11 of those hours with digital media as it is.

With the volume of content pouring out from every imaginable platform across every type of digital media, your audience simply doesn’t have enough time to sort through and click on every headline they come across in a day. They must prioritize what they read in full.

(And in fact, they know there’s too much content to consume. And it’s stressful.)

Not to mention, the modern reader of Internet content has an attention span that struggles to focus on one thing for longer than 8 seconds. Yes, that’s what the National Center for Biotechnology Information found to be the average attention span in 2013. And yes, that means that our average attention spans are now officially shorter than that of the average goldfish.

Your readers look to the various content creators and writers to give them a hint as to what is worth spending more than a precious 8 seconds of their day to read. You can give them that hint via your headline if you understand the psychology in play that leaves your reader no choice but to click on that snippet that sets off your post.

Use emotion. Tell a story.

Telling someone to “hook your reader” or “create something hooky” is no longer sufficient advice when it comes to writing headlines that get clicks. It’s more important than ever to understand the psychology of readers in order to design a engaging headline that demands your audience continue on and read the next sentence in your post… and that sentence should leave them no choice but to want to read the next sentence, and so on.

Why bother with understanding the basics of human psychology? It’s the study of the human mind and behavior, and understanding the way we act and think is critical to persuading others to do what we want.

In this case, it’s using your headline to decide to read your entire piece of content.

Remember, we’re exploring the why behind engaging headlines. Let’s examine the psychology at work first, and then demonstrate how to put these principles into action the next time you need a snappy, clickable title for your post or article.

Start by understanding some basics of human behavior. Traditional psychological research says that people experience six basic emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. But newer research indicates that humans really only experience four basic emotions: happy, sad, surprised/afraid, and disgusted/angry.

If you want to write a headline that grabs your reader, you need to start by playing off these base emotions. That doesn’t mean go out and write a headline that will piss off your audience if you’re interested in exploring the “disgusted/angry” angle — but it could mean writing a headline that might cause controversy, or that stirs a sense of outrage.

Understanding basic human emotion can help you create a headline that demands a response because it appeals to feelings every single one of us shares. But it’s only step one. An effective headline doesn’t just resonate with our emotions. It also compels us to dive deeper and learn more.

We may only have four basic feelings and that 8 second attention span — but our psychology does get a little more complicated. Humans are also extremely curious, and you can use that to your advantage when crafting headlines for your content.

We’re so inquisitive by nature, according to this piece on BBC, because “curiosity is nature’s built-in exploration bonus.” People are wired to try new things and to pick up every tidbit of knowledge that may eventually, one day, become useful or critical for us to know.

Our need to know more is what makes a highly descriptive and accurate label on a piece of content completely uninteresting. There’s no mystery, no question to answer, no reason for our brain to perk up and want to know more. A plain, statement headline that leaves nothing to the imagination doesn’t engage our curiosity, and so we move on.

You know that humans are emotional and inquisitive. Now you need to understand how to take advantage of that knowledge when creating content.

Let’s walk through the types of headlines that work — and after picking up on some psychology basics, you should be able to see why these tactics compel readers to click and keep reading.


Surprise is one of the basic human emotions we all experience. Using this in your headlines works because our brains are wired to perk up at things that are provoking or novel. We like to receive something unexpected (as long as it’s positive or good).

A surprising headline that offers something we didn’t expect. That serves not only to capture attention, but also compel readers to click and keep reading. It makes your audience sit up and feel rewarded for doing so.


Using a question in your headline intrigues readers and gets them wondering about the answers. In the same way we’re programmed to feel rewarded by something unexpected and pleasant, readers are compelled to want to know more.

Asking things like why, when, which, and what in your headline promises an explanation in your post. Asking questions in general creates an “information gap” that readers feel a need to bridge.

The right question can get a reader thinking and engaged, and they’ll want to read more to find the answer.

You need to be careful with headlines that ask questions and are designed to play off a reader’s curiosity. If the question isn’t precisely targeted to your ideal audience, the headline will be ineffective. Keep this in mind: design questions your readers want answers to, and not those that focus solely on the question you want to answer for them.


Our brains also like puzzles and are wired to problem-solve. Headlines that ask questions are effective — but so are those that promise the answers and solutions.

That’s why the always effective “how-to” headline is effective. We always want to learn more and add to our knowledge, and writing a headline that hints at what you’ll be able to know and do after reading is irresistible.

Use your headlines to show that you’re about to teach something or show your audience how to overcome one of their pain points. Hint at the answers and solutions you’ll give, and then deliver in the full body of your post.


Human emotional range doesn’t start and end with positive feelings. We naturally experience negative emotions as well, and you can use negativity to your advantage when crafting headlines that engage.

While we normally focus on using positivity to make our audience feel good, studies show that you might compel more action in your readers by writing headlines that use negative words. One study found that, compared with headlines that used no superlatives, headlines that used negative superlatives performed 30% better. Those that used positive superlatives performed worse than the benchmark.

Why? The same study suggests a few reasons for the results:

  • People may feel tired of headlines peppered with overly-optimistic words.
  • Marketers tend to create positive feelings, so something negative may feel new and novel (read: surprising!).
  • With the rise of content marketing and the wider use of content to sell a message, service, or product, people may feel skeptical of positive headlines and could see them as biased. Negative headlines suggest the content may be more impartial or unbiased.

Because of the amount of content that your audience has to sort through every day, you can’t settle for giving your pieces average headlines that merely label what they’ll cover.

The way people think and feel — even on a subconscious level — helps determine what content they interact with online. Understanding a little bit of the psychology behind what words evoke powerful emotions can help you better capture readers.

Consider going beyond just learning how to write an engaging headline. Incorporate knowing why those headlines engage and prove effective at compelling readers to click through and keep reading.


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