One key objective for many marketers is to create content that would go viral on the Internet. Viral content creates high exposure without paying media companies to carry the message. On the internet, you will find many suggestions on how to create “viral” content, but these self-taught virality gurus rarely explain what psychological factors drive virality. In this post, we will focus on few emotional factors that increase virality, online and offline.


Monthly Consumer Discoveries is a Monthly newsletter that brings you the most interesting updates in consumer behavior research.



What is virality

We all have an approximate idea of what virality is, but it is quite difficult to find a strong definition of the concept. The available definitions of virality describe it as the effect of a great sharability of contents online. If the content is shared very frequently online, it spread among social networks and becomes “viral”. Content that has the potential of being shared more, is more “viral” and it spread more quickly. In this post, we will use virality as a synonym of sharability, and we will see what factors influence people to share more one type of content over the other.


How emotions affect virality

Humans can experience many emotions, like anger, happiness, nostalgia. A classic theory of emotions states that there are three dimensions around which emotions can be organized: Arousal, Valence, and Dominance. As it turns out, two of these emotions are good predictors of when content becomes sharable.



As we discussed in a previous post, arousal is a psychological status describing when people are excited or relaxed. High arousal happens when we are elated, excited (also sexually), or frightened. Low arousal happens when we are sad, depressed, pacific, or relaxed.

Early research on arousal and sharability has shown that people are more likely to share any content when they are aroused. In a study, researchers show that when people are artificially made aroused (making them run for two minutes), they were more likely to share an article with a friend than people made stay sit for two minutes. As it turns out, arousal on the content itself is also the greatest predictor of sharability. People like to share content that is arousing, that is activating and that makes them elated. On the other side, content that is calm, pacific, sad, is less likely to be shared.

Many content creators have understood the importance of arousal, and they explicitly increase the arousing elements of content (probably without even knowing about this theory). Vloggers present their videos with pictures of them wowed, excited, surprised. They use capital letters and exclamation marks to signal their elated condition while creating the video. They use words like “excited,” “incredible,” “crazy” to elicit arousal. They talk with a high volume, like if they were screaming. There is even a blogger about plants (a quite un-arousing topic), that chose to call himself the “crazy plant guy.”



Valence is another important factor predicting sharability. It describes the direction (positive or negative) of an emotion. Positive emotions are, for example, happiness and calm, while negative emotions are sadness and anger.

A lot of research on emotions suggests that people are more likely to put a higher importance on negative emotions than on positive emotions (the so-called negativity bias). After all, negative experiences are dangerous and can lead to negative outcomes, much more than positive emotions. As expected, research suggests that consumers are more likely to share negative content than positive content. Emotions like anger and fright are more sharable than happiness and joy. This explains why the majority of online news is negative. Journalists assume that people are more interested in information that would negatively impact their life than information that would improve it.


Research on this area also shows that the extremity of emotions is important. People are more likely to share content that is extremely positive or extremely negative, instead of content that is in the middle. Extremity is important because people have a natural need for stimulation, that can be met by very emotional content (both positive and negative). Consumers do not share content that has little emotional power because it does not stimulate them. The importance of extremity is clear by looking at the type of content that you can find on your social media. Content is usually either extremely positive (e.g., funny, excited, sexual), or negative (e.g., frightening, dangerous).

What marketers can do:

  • Create arousing content. Use all the possibilities you have to create content that would arouse people. Find a way to use emotions that would activate people, and your content will become automatically more shared online.
  • Create negative content. As a general rule, negative content is more sharable than positive one. A decrease in the stock market by 2% is more likely to be shared than an increase of the stock market by 2%. If you can find a way to explain what consumers are losing not choosing your product, for example, you can make your content more sharable.
  • Create emotional content. The extremity of the emotions elicited is also important. Create content that is emotionally charged, either with positive or negative emotions, and you will increase the virality of the content.


Take home message

To increase sharability (virality) of content, create arousing, emotional and negative content.


Monthly Consumer Discoveries is a Monthly newsletter that brings you the most interesting updates in consumer behavior research.




Bad news dominate media because they are more interesting and sharable. As a result, our social media are floated with negative information, that we scroll every day for hours. This practice of daily “doom scrolling” affects people’s life, making them perceive a world that is was more negative and dangerous than it actually is. While negative and arousing emotions are more likely to be in social media, negative and positive experiences are more balanced in real life. So, if you feel not at your best, try to unsubscribe/unfollow the news and angry groups for some weeks. The world will start once again to bright with its real colors: the colors of your direct experience and not the colors of social-media-filtered information.





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