The Psychology Of Surprise Is The Key To Great Headlines – Not Templates

The Psychology Of Surprise Is The Key To Great Headlines - Not Templates

There are multiple ways to write a headline but only a few reasons why all great headlines work.

Headline templates are a great source of inspiration. 

But relying on them without understanding WHY they work puts you at a disadvantage.

What are the underlying principles that make a headline great?

The answer to this question can empower you to get more eyeballs on your content.

Copywriters or marketers will tell you that you need a catchy hook to get someone’s attention.

One of the underlying mechanisms that make a catchy hook work is “the psychology of surprise.”

This human mechanism is often under-valued, and I’ll explain why the science of surprise is the most critical aspect of getting people’s attention.

Schemas: A Fundamental Aspect Of Being Human

Before August 2006, everyone thought that Pluto was an official planet in our Solar System.  But when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) downgraded Pluto to “dwarf planet” status, this was a big surprise.

If you’re interested in our Solar System and Space, this likely got your attention. Maybe you even invested some time into researching what happened.

Over the past several decades, cognitive scientists have discovered that we all have “schemas.” 

Schemas are organized clusters of knowledge you hold in your mind about a subject or event.  Before August 2006, your “Solar System Schema” was that Pluto was an official planet.  

“Schemas can be regarded as cognitive representations of humans’ informal, unarticulated theories about objects, events, event sequences (including actions and their consequences), and situations. Schemas serve the interpretation of present and past, and the prediction of future events, and thereby, the adaptive guidance of action.”

The Cognitive‐Evolutionary Model of Surprise: A Review of the Evidence

When you hear people talk about mental models, they’re referring to this concept of schemas.

Mental models typically have more practical connotations (whereas academics may be criticized for getting lost in the study of schemata).

I believe both approaches have value. 

Either way, I’ll be using the terms “schema” and “models” interchangeably in this post.

They represent our conceptual and perceptual perspective of how the world works (on both a small and large scale).

I couldn’t tell you how a car engine works.  My model is incomplete and not very accurate.

Compare that to a car mechanic, whose mental model of a car engine will be more accurate than mine. His knowledge and experience are far greater.

We Pay Attention To Information That Doesn’t Match Our Existing Schemata

When we acquire new information that doesn’t match our existing model, our “schema-discrepancy detector” gets triggered.

This mismatch creates the sensation of surprise.

When Pluto was no longer an official planet, this created a discrepancy between our existing “Solar System schema” and this new information.

This mismatch forces you to pay attention and focus (especially if it’s an urgent and relevant problem in your life).

Researchers studying this phenomenon explain the significance of surprise and how it gets our attention. 

“Unexpected events cause an automatic interruption of ongoing mental processes that is followed by an attentional shift and attentional binding to the events, which is often followed by causal and other event analysis processes and by schema revision.”

The Cognitive‐Evolutionary Model of Surprise: A Review of the Evidence

If you want to learn the art of getting people’s attention, it’s essential to understand how to surprise them.

Make Your Headlines Counter-Intuitive

Entrepreneur and thought leader Michael Simmons understands how to grab people’s attention.

He’s figured out that an idea or headline that is counter-intuitive is the key to getting people to pay attention to you.

What does the word “counter-intuitive” mean?

Within the context of cognitive science, it’s an idea that triggers our “schema-discrepancy detector.” It’s an idea that is NOT currently a piece of our schema or model.

This counter-intuitive idea creates the sensation of surprise and gets our attention.  

If the relevancy and urgency of the topic are high, we invest in it. Combine these with other forms of motivation (like acute wants and needs), and you’re heading in the right direction.

For instance, I used Buzzsumo to research the most engaging headlines in 2020, and a lot of them reference the Covid-19 pandemic.

The following headline is trendy – urgent and relevant – and implies that there’s information that we don’t know (triggering the schema-discrepancy detector).  

Once you understand that surprise is pivotal in getting someone’s attention, it’s time to apply it ethically.

Ethically Surprise Someone And Get Their Attention In 4 Steps

With knowledge of how the psychology of surprise works, we must use it ethically.

Nobody likes clickbait.

So if you want to grab someone’s attention by using a counter-intuitive headline, keep the content congruent and valuable.

With quality being our intention, here are four steps for grabbing someone’s attention: 

Step 1: What’s your content topic or idea?

Step 2: What’s your audiences’ schema or model of how that thing works? What’s their understanding of it?

Step 3: What do YOU know that does NOT exist within their current schema or model? Trigger the “schema-discrepancy” mechanism.

Step 4: Simplify the idea so it’s coherent and understandable.


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