Viral content typically evokes high-arousal emotions, such as joy or fear. But new research suggests arousal is just one of the underlying drivers of viral content. High dominance, or a feeling of being in control, may be another key driver behind content that is widely shared.
New work from Jacopo Staiano of Sorbonne University and Marco Guerini of Trento Rise sheds light on the roles that valence, arousal, and dominance play in content that goes viral. The findings indicate that individual emotions may not determine virality — what really matters may be where the emotions fall within the Valence-Arousal-Dominance (VAD) model. This scale is frequently used in psychology to categorize emotions. Each individual emotion is a combination of three characteristics:
Valence is the positivity or negativity of an emotion. Happiness has a positive valence; fear has a negative valence.
Arousal ranges from excitement to relaxation. Anger is a high-arousal emotion; sadness is low-arousal.
Dominance ranges from submission to feeling in control. Fear is low-dominance; an emotion a person has more choice over, such as admiration, is high-dominance.
The researchers looked at 65,000 articles on two news sites where readers had assigned emotional scores to the articles. They then looked for patterns among the viral stories, measuring virality by the number of comments and social shares each article received. A clear connection appeared between instances of viral content and certain configurations of valence, arousal, and dominance.
A key finding from the study is about the different role that arousal and dominance each play in commenting behavior compared to social sharing behavior.
Articles with a large number of comments were found to evoke high-arousal emotions, such as anger and happiness, paired with low-dominance emotions where people felt less in control, such as fear. The New York Times articles that received the most comments in 2015 all featured emotionally charged, and often divisive, topics: Amazon’s stringent workplace policies, Kim Davis, a police officer charged with murder, the San Bernardino shootings, the Benghazi panel.
On the other hand, social sharing was very connected to feelings of high dominance, where the reader feels in control, such as inspiration or admiration. This explains why your Facebook newsfeed may be flooded by friends sharing feel-good stories. Some of the most-shared content on Facebook within the past year included titles such as “17 Reasons Why Your High School Best Friends Will Be Your BFFs for Life” (more than 230,000 Facebook shares) and “51 of the Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature” (more than 300,000 Facebook shares).
Emotional valence was less-connected to virality, with the viral stories having both negative and positive valences. However, the researchers did find that negative emotions contributed to higher virality.
To better understand this research and how it can be applied to marketing, our team at Fractl conducted a study that looked at individual emotions and levels of arousal and dominance evoked by viral images. We surveyed about 400 people on their emotional responses to 100 of the top images from Reddit’s r/pics community. Each of these images had thousands of upvotes and hundreds or thousands of comments, plus at least one million views on Imgur (the popular photo-hosting site).
We then scored the responses using the PAD emotional state model (similar to the VAD model) to study the emotional responses to each image.
A few arousal and dominance configurations occurred most frequently in the viral images, and certain emotional combinations were often present in these configurations, as shown in the chart below:
What we found echoes our previous study and other research on viral emotions: Viral content tends to be surprising, emotionally complex, or extremely positive. However, our latest findings help explain why these emotional combinations are so effective at driving people to share — because they achieve the right configurations of arousal and dominance.
When both arousal and dominance were high, the accompanying emotions were overwhelmingly positive and occasionally included an element of surprise. Admiration, happiness, and love were the most common positive emotions to appear in these instances. This image of paramedics staying behind to do the dishes after a woman was taken to the hospital evoked a purely positive emotional response. The majority of responses to this image are grouped as high-arousal, high-dominance, and high-pleasure.
When arousal was high and dominance was low, the response always included surprise and at least one positive emotion. The emotional combinations were mostly surprise mixed with only positive emotions or surprise paired with a combination of both positive and negative emotions. Fear and distress were the most common negative emotions in this configuration, and happiness and admiration were the most common positive emotions. This image of a cheetah jumping into a jeep during a safari was rated as surprising, negative, and positive. The majority of the responses to this image fell within the high-arousal, low-to-mid-dominance, and low-pleasure configuration.
When arousal and dominance were both low, there was a greater variation in the emotional responses. Surprise was the primary or secondary response in nearly every image with low-arousal and dominance. Unlike the high arousal-low dominance configurations where positive emotions were always present, as long as the image was surprising the other emotions could be either purely positive or negative. This tells us that negative content may have a better chance of going viral if it is also surprising. Pity and surprise were the top emotions chosen for this image of a cringeworthy moment on the baseball field. The majority of responses to this image grouped within a mid-to-low-arousal, low-dominance, and low-pleasure configuration.
Marketers wanting to increase viral potential can create the ideal configuration of arousal and dominance for reaching a massive audience by incorporating the right emotional combinations into their content.
For example, positive content is primed for social sharing. Our study found that admiration and happiness have a strong correlation with high dominance. This makes sense since the motivation for sharing upbeat content may be rooted in self-presentation. Passing on a positive emotional experience makes others feel good, which in turn makes the sharer look good. Including an element of surprise can help magnify the content’s positive valence.
BuzzFeed’s Dear Kitten video series, created for Purina, has been a marketing gold mine; the hilarious and adorable videos have amassed tens of millions of views. The Doritos Ultrasound ad was the most-shared Super Bowl commercial this year, likely due to its high amusement factor paired with a surprising ending.
If arousal is high enough, viral content can be primarily negative. Evoking high-arousal emotions such as fear or anger is necessary for negative content that is not surprising. Only two out of the 100 images in our study evoked purely negative emotions, but both of these images made our respondents feel anger, fear, or distress.
For the Perceptions of Perfection campaign we created for our client Superdrug, we asked designers from 18 countries to Photoshop a model’s body to make her more beautiful according to their cultural standards. The resulting images offered a lot of shock value, and the stark contrast in the doctored images compared with the original evoked a lot of angry responses from viewers, which no doubt drove the campaign’s million social shares and millions of impressions.
Sad content can still be viral if it includes a strong element of surprise or admiration. One of the most-surprising findings of our study was that images could still go viral even if they did not incite high-arousal emotions. Viral images that evoked negative, low-arousal emotions, such as sadness or depression, were also surprising or inspiring.
Always’s “Like a Girl” campaign videos have received tens of millions of views. The campaign’s message is upsetting — that the phrase “like a girl” is insulting and limiting — but the thoughtful reactions of the young girls and women in the videos are surprising and uplifting.
Research on viral emotions continues to prove that going viral is not a matter of luck, as was previously thought, but rather is a matter of creating a powerful emotional experience. Marketers who understand how to strike the right emotional chords with their messaging can greatly increase their chances of viral success.