What Emotions Result in Social Sharing?

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What motivates people to share what they do online?

Is it the source of the content? Is it the type of content? Is it an emotional response to the content? Or unrelated to the content?

The psychology of sharing has been studied by marketers, academics, and psychologists. Tucker Max, a New York Times boils the psychology of sharing down to one word, “status.”

“Word of mouth is a status play. If you give people something good, something valuable, they want to talk about it. It benefits them to talk about it…if I share a book with you, it raises my status, it helps me look good to my friends that I know this and now I’m sharing it with you.”  

Is it that simple?

Do we share content that makes us look good?

Are there deeper psychological reasons why we share content?

To understand the psychology of sharing, Ernest Dichter, an Austrian psychologist in 1966 Harvard Business Review published the article “How Word-of-Mouth Advertising Works.”

Dichter outlined four reasons people are motivated to talk about brands and products.

  1. Product Involvement (33%) – A positive and pleasurable customer experience that it has to be shared.
  2. Self-Involvement (24%) – To gain attention, it makes you feel special as if you have inside information or were the first to know.
  3. Other Involvement (20%) – You want to help others.
  4. Message – Involvement (20%) – The message is so important that others need to be aware.

When the consumer feels that the advertiser speaks to him as a friend…the consumer will relax and tend to accept the recommendation. ~Dichter

Looking to expand on how viral emotions impact social sharing, working with a graduate psychology student to review studies on social sharing.  Additional emotional aspects that lead to high levels of sharing and engagement were identified.

We wanted to understand why certain emotions are so effective at driving people to share.

Reviewing the role of arousal and excitability combined with dominance and control certain emotions are beneficial at soliciting a viral effect due to the levels of arousal and dominance ignited by those emotions.

Before we dive into the findings of the study results, we need to take a look at the study parameters and the general emotional responses to the viral images.

The survey involved 425 people who were asked to monitor the emotional response to top 100 images from Reddit’s r/pics community.

Images had to have at least 1 million views on Imgur; these consisted of images that had gone viral.  Each had thousands of comments on and upvotes on Reddit.

Viral Images with Positive Emotional Reactions Were The Most Common

Overall, the common emotions compiled by the participants are positive, with the results shown below, with happiness, surprise, and admiration leading:

Top Emotional Responses To Viral Images

  1. Happiness
  2. Surprise
  3. Admiration
  4. Satisfaction
  5. Hope
  6. Love
  7. Happiness for
  8. Concentration
  9. Pride
  10. Gratitude

Carol Forden What Emotions Result in Social Sharing?  Positive emotions exceeded those of negative emotions.  Negative emotions were lead by hate, resentment, and hate.

Dominance and Arousal Add to Virality

According to current research, certain emotional responses aid content in going viral.  These emotional responses fall within certain configurations on the Valence-Arousal-Dominance model. The Valence-Arousal-Dominance model is used in psychology to rank emotional responses. The model uses three distinct aspects or factors to determine the combination of individual emotions:

  • Valence determines if the emotional response positive or negative?  For example, fear is a negative valence and happiness is a positive valence.
  • Arousal Anger is a high-arousal emotion while sadness is low arousal.  Arousal ranges from excitement to relaxation.
  • Dominance Fear is low dominance, while an emotion a person has more choice over, such as admiration, is high dominance.  Feeling that range from being in control to submission is dominance.

In this study, two news sites that allow readers to assign emotional scores to content were reviewed by researchers, in total 65,000 articles were reviewed. This study demonstrated a pattern between certain combinations of valence, arousal, and dominance and viral news stories. A few critical findings from the study are:

  1. Low dominance and high arousal drive discussions. Content or images that garner a lot of comments evoked high-arousal emotions.  These ranged from  anger and happiness, often paired with low-dominance emotions like fear, where people felt less in control.
  2. High dominance is tied to social sharing.

    When people feel in control, emotional responses such as admiration or inspiration, images that derived these emotional responses had a high number of social shares.

Valence, Arousal, and Dominance in Viral Images

To better understand this research, researchers scored the emotional responses in the survey with the PAD emotional state model.  This is similar to the Valence-Arousal-Dominance model. As with earlier studies, patterns between emotional sentiment toward the images and varying levels of arousal and dominance emerged.

Combining dominance with arousal has a proportionate response when the emotions are positive and correlated with an element of surprise or all positive.

Carol Forden What Emotions Result in Social Sharing?  Paramedics doing the dishes after a woman was taken to the hospital evoked a purely positive emotional response. Source:  Imgur

Carol Forden What Emotions Result in Social Sharing?

When emotional responses are a combination of surprise, negative, and/or positive emotions arousal is high, and dominance is low.

Carol Forden What Emotions Result in Social Sharing?  The below image was rated as surprising, negative, and positive. Source:  Imgur

Carol Forden What Emotions Result in Social Sharing?

Pity and surprise were the top emotions for this image that most of us would consider embarrassing.  Source:  Imgur

Carol Forden What Emotions Result in Social Sharing?

How to Increase Your Content’s Viral Potential

As a marketer, how do you use this data?

Images that surprise combined with positive emotions have immense sharing potential.

Content that adds humor and makes people laugh or feel good has a higher probability of social sharing. Research has found admiration and happiness have a strong correlation with high dominance, which induces people to share.

Add an element of surprise to help magnify the positive feelings that one experiences.

Pair low-arousal emotions with surprise or admiration.

If your content induces anger or unhappiness you need to add an element of surprise or admiration to increase its viral potential.

One of the most interesting findings of the studies was that images that lack a high arousal emotion still have a high probability to go viral.

The viral images that evoked negative, low-arousal emotions, such as anger, depression, hate, or sadness induced surprise and admiration from survey respondents.

Negative content that plays up high-arousal emotions that is not surprising.

Many of the images in studies that conveyed negative emotions also were rated as surprising.

Images that invoked high-arousal emotions, such as: anger, fear, or distress deliver high negative responses.  These are high-arousal emotions.

Bottom line studies show that it is not just a single emotion that drives people to engage with and share content. Keep in mind that other emotional factors contribute to the spread of viral content when creating content.

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