Lingerie, pranks and slow motion science.
This is just some of the content that keeps TikTok’s users hooked, thanks to its skill in exploiting behavioural science around the nature of attention and curiosity. Hijacking these hardwired biases gives content creators a powerful edge in the hyper-competitive attention economy.
I have to confess, TikTok had never really appealed to me as an uptight man in my thirties: my favourite celebrities are mostly dead, and I believe dancing betrays a lack of character. Yet as part of a project for a record label, I made an account, and within minutes I was hooked. I’d discarded my pious inhibitions on the floor like a reformed alcoholic’s underwear at the office Christmas party.
If you’ve spent even a minute on TikTok, you’ll know just how addictive it is. A Forbes article even likened it to digital crack cocaine, quoting a USC professor that “you’ll just be in this pleasurable dopamine state, carried away”. It’s little wonder that the app has seen such impressive growth; it’s now used by 69% of American teens, while British users spend an hour on the app each day.
The app must be doing something right - so it holds valuable lessons for us all. Attention is a scarce, valuable resource (which is why we “pay attention”), and the key to changing behaviour: research shows that we tend to ‘like what we see’, and that our behaviour is primed, shaped, and directed by whatever is front-of-mind. If something is attention-grabbing, we’re much more likely to engage with it, remember it, and act upon it.
That’s why I started this article with the word “lingerie”. You kept reading, didn’t you?
There are three key parts to the psychology of successful TikTok content.
We are all cognitive misers: we have very limited brainpower for paying attention to the world. One study even found that about half of people will fail to notice a unicycling clown during a walk through the park. We simply do not have the cognitive resources to consciously process all of the information around us.
However, there are certain things to which our conscious minds will immediately pay attention. For example, if someone says your name during conversation across the room, you’ll instantly listen to them, even if you weren’t before. There is a part of the brain that acts as a bouncer, processing all of the sensory information around us and pointing our limited conscious attention towards that it deems most important.
TikTok videos are masters at using the things on the VIP list of the brain’s bouncer to sneak past the red velvet rope of conscious attention.
One of the brain’s attention VIPs is, of course, sex. There is clear evolutionary value in paying attention to sex, and all sorts of research, from eye-tracking to ad recall, has shown that it makes us look. Racy Calvin Klein underwear billboards are even reported to have caused traffic accidents among distracted drivers. On TikTok, scantily-clad young women pouting and jiggling seem to dominate my feed (although my fiancée huffed that TikTok serves me the content I watch the longest). Anything that’s sexy or sex-adjacent will keep eyeballs glued to the screen.
We will also pay attention to anything emotional - whether that’s relationship drama, people being sassy or confrontational, or disgusting scenes like pimple-popping and sinus-clearing. Emotions like fear, anger and disgust have a strong evolutionary value – it’s only by paying attention to disgusting things, for example, that we can stay fit and healthy. A review of ads once concluded that the best ones are “pure emotion”, and the same is surely true of TikTok videos.
Anything that’s cute - i.e., has baby schema such as big eyes, vulnerability, and squeaky noises - will also grab our attention because our species would not have lasted very long if we didn’t look after our offspring. One study found that people concentrated significantly harder on the board game Operation if they were shown cute animals beforehand. Adverts have been ruthlessly exploiting this brain hack for a while (Compare the Meerkat, anyone?); TikTok videos with babies, puppies and kittens are likewise destined for success.
There is an attentional ‘spotlight’ in the brain that is constantly looking for things we recognise. Have you ever, for example, bought a t-shirt and then suddenly noticed lots of other people seemed to have it too? Remember that you’ll immediately listen to a conversation at a noisy cocktail party if you hear your name being spoken. There is a huge amount of research showing that we pay attention to stimuli personal to us, and indeed there are whole direct marketing and digital advertising industries devoted to this principle. On TikTok, content is often successful when it is counterintuitively personal to everyone - that is, when it has something that most people will recognise and identify with, such as popular songs being lip synced or famous celebrities completing challenges, or even memes about widely relatable topics like life under lockdown.
One of the most sure-fire ways to grab attention is through the use of contrast - that is, changes in sound or movement. If a bird flew towards you, you would automatically look in its direction; or if a waiter drops a tray of plates, most people turn to look. Think of it like jangling keys in front of a baby. This is why video advertisements are more memorable than static images, and its why sales displays with television screens are so effective. TikTok is the master at using contrast: unlike competitors like Instagram, its content is all video. The platform is perhaps best well known for dance videos, which are expressions of pure energy distilled into short bursts of movement and music; and the most popular content seems to use abrasive, up-tempo music, and often lots of video cuts.
Why do people still read about Jack the Ripper, 130 years later?
The answer has something to do with the curiosity gap. We are hardwired to close gaps in our understanding of the world - to answer questions, solve puzzles, and reduce cognitive dissonance. This is why mysteries remain so enduringly captivating, and why we binge-watch Netflix shows where every episode ends in a cliff-hanger.
TikTok videos are a masterclass in micro-moments of suspense. The most successful ones often show you something which doesn’t quite fit expectations and needs a little bit of figuring out, or which keeps you watching until the end of the video to resolve some kind of ‘riddle’ or tension.
👽 Subverting Expectations
We will engage closely with anything that breaks taboos or subverts expectations, because we want to ‘figure it out’ - an entire industry of modern art is built around this fact. In fact, one series of interviews with advertising executives found that creativity was the most important thing for engagement. Brain activity research has shown there is a sudden spike in concentration when something unexpected appears (e.g., “Turtles are not as smart as mammals like socks or dogs”). TikTok videos which show something weird, transgressive or unexpected will do well. One popular trend is to take something well-known (like a soundbite or a song) and then put a twist on it.
People like to learn new things; one study found that being interesting was one of the biggest predictors of news stories going viral. On TikTok, videos often succeed when they teach viewers something new and pique their curiosity - such as science experiments or cooking videos.
🎁 Mystery Box
Research has shown that a good way to get children (and even adults) to comply with a request is through the use of a mystery box: “Be good and you’ll get a secret prize; you won’t know what it is unless you’re good!” This works better than promising a known prize because of our need to solve mysteries. TikTok videos sometimes make you wait until the end to find out what’s ‘in the box’. One risqué example is the Silhouette Challenge, where the music clues the viewer into the fact that the star is going to pose in their underwear at the end of the video; it makes the viewer wonder what they’ll look like under their clothes, and keeps them viewing for the ‘prize’ at the end.
🛣️ Set-up, Punchline
Similarly, viewers are kept engaged by content which keeps them in suspense. In fact, most forms of art do this: you listen to music to resolve melodic tension and decode the patterns; you enjoy jokes when a set-up leads to a punchline; and you watch movies until the end to see how the story resolves. On TikTok, videos often set up some sort of premise, like a joke, that keeps you watching until the resolution (with text like, “Wait for it…”). For example, if it looks like somebody is about to slip on some ice, you’ll watch the whole video to see it happen.
🧩 Oddly Satisfying
Finally, the brain loves symmetry and completion. There is a large trend in TikTok videos with an oddly satisfying aspect to them - like squeezing spots or cutting fruit. A video is likely to be successful if it makes people go, “Ahhh…”
With these ten psychology tips, you’re bound to make your version of digital cocaine! Could you be the next Pablo Escobar of TikTok?