Facebook and the Art of the Click

February 6, 2017, 4:00 PM UTC
Broccoli: TS Photography—Getty Images; Cupcake: Imagesource/Getty Images

Facebook (FB) terrifies news publishers—and for good reason. The company was eating the media’s advertising pie even before the election’s “fake news” fiasco. But as they look to save their business models, publishers would benefit from studying the unappreciated subtlety of Menlo Park’s audience philosophy.

Facebook’s News Feed is an algorithmically organized stack of content, designed to show the most relevant and meaningful stuff at the top. You might assume that Facebook organizes this stack by simply watching how people behave and rewarding their basest tendencies.

But Facebook has found that every user is two distinct identities. First, there is their behavioral self—each user’s clicks, likes, and shares. Second, there is the aspirational self, the stuff that users say they want but don’t actually click on. For example, many people tell Facebook in surveys that they like news stories more than frivolous content, but then they almost exclusively click on baby photos and funny videos.

People’s stated preferences are often lies. Their revealed preferences are often sordid. So, which do you listen to? Both, says Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s VP overseeing the News Feed. He said Facebook is most popular when it serves both the aspirational self and the behavioral self, with the same feed. Lots of wedding photos, yes, but also a smattering of current affairs.

The psychology of our media diets isn’t so different from the psychology of our actual diets. In the early 2000s, McDonald’s promoted salad on its menu but saw rejuvenated revenue growth from burgers and fries. In 2010, Duke University researchers studying the phenomenon called it “vicarious goal fulfillment”: merely considering a salad granted license to indulge in grease.

There is a critical lesson here, not only for other news publishers but also for all businesses. To understand what consumers want, you can’t just ask them. Don’t just watch them, either. You need both consumer surveys and consumer anthropology to see their behaviors and their aspirations—who they are, and who they wish they were.

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at the Atlantic magazine, and the author of Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, out on Feb. 7. You can purchase the book here.

A version of this article appears in the February 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Why You Click on Those Cat Videos.” We’ve included affiliate links in this article. Click here to learn what those are.

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