Marketing Content Strategy

The Psychology Behind the Emotions that Spur Viral Content

5 Minute Read

“Virality isn’t luck. It’s not magic. And it’s not random. There’s a science behind why people talk and share. A recipe. A formula, even.”—Jonah Berger

What makes a story go viral? What is it that makes us share? With 76 percent of B2B marketers saying they will produce more content in 2016, people are eager to understand the psychology behind the emotions that make stories go viral.

At Fractl, where I work as the strategic growth specialist, my team sought to answer these questions. We surveyed 400 people and asked them to record their emotional responses to 100 of the top images from Reddit’s r/pics community. While our negative emotions might make us more creative, our research showed that we tend to associate positive emotions with viral content.

Consider Coldplay’s Game of Thrones: The Musical, which to date has drawn nearly 20 million views on YouTube. This campaign might have had some help from the show’s massive fan base, but it also evoked warmer, happier feelings—partially due to the fact that it was produced as part of Red Nose Day in an effort to raise money to fight childhood poverty.

So what exactly is the reason this video went viral? Our research shows that we can attribute its success—and the success of many other hugely popular campaigns—to positive emotions. In fact, of the top 10 emotional responses to viral images, happiness, surprise, and admiration were ranked by survey respondents as the top three.

If you want your brand’s story to be not only read, but also shared and talked about, these are the 10 ingredients you need in your next content marketing recipe:


Let’s talk about why that’s the case.

The Science Behind Emotions and Virality

We based our study on new research from Jacopo Staiano of Sorbonne University and Marco Guerini of Trento Rise, who examined evocative viral content and where it falls on an emotional categorization scale called the Valence-Arousal-Dominance (VAD) model. According to the VAD model, individual emotions are made up of a combination of these three characteristics:

  1. Valence—the positivity or negativity of an emotion. Happiness has a positive valence, while fear has a negative valence.
  2. Arousal—which ranges from excitement to relaxation. Anger is a high-arousal emotion while sadness is low arousal.
  3. Dominance—which ranges from submission to feeling in control. Fear is low dominance, while an emotion a person has more control over (such as admiration) is high dominance.

The researchers’ emotional analysis of 65,000 articles revealed a clear link between these three characteristics and viral news stories. A key finding from their study indicated that emotions that made people feel in control, such as admiration or inspiration, were present in the news stories that had higher numbers of social shares.

To better understand this research, we scored the emotional responses in our survey using the PAD emotional state model, which uses three numerical dimensions—pleasure, arousal, and dominance—to represent all emotions.

By taking a closer look at how these dimensions varied among viral images, we were able to establish the ideal levels of each, as well as the corresponding emotional sentiments, and determine the most common emotional combinations that drive people to share.


These findings echo our previous study of viral emotions, which showed that highly shared content tends to be “surprising, emotionally complex, or extremely positive.” However, our latest findings also detail why these emotional combinations of arousal, dominance, or surprise are musts if you are on the hunt for the formula for virality.

What if Your Content Is Negative?

Negative emotions were reported far less than positive emotions by survey respondents. Hate, reproach, and resentment were among the bottom three emotional responses.

Emotion responses to viral images fractl.jpg

But by using the right combinations of arousal and dominance, you can still generate a massive amount of shares and engagement through content that evokes negative emotions.

For instance, the below image of a cheetah jumping into a jeep during a safari evoked feelings of surprise, negativity, and positivity among respondents:

cheetah viral emotions study fractl.jpg

And this plane crash selfie elicited feelings of negativity and surprise:

plane crash selfie viral emotions fractl.jpg

Even though both of these images evoked negative sentiments, it was the element of surprise paired with a high level of arousal that boosted shares and made these images go viral.

Images that evoked negative, low-arousal emotions such as depression or sadness (like this mother’s headstone), also induced surprise and admiration from our survey respondent:

viral emotions fractl.jpg

If you create content that produces low-arousal emotions in your audience, it’s important to include a strong element of surprise or admiration to increase its viral potential.

Virality Isn’t About Luck—But That Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Get Lucky

Jonah Berger, marketing professor and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, said: “The next time someone tells you that going viral is about luck, politely tell them that there is a better way. Science.”

Although Berger is correct, and our research backs up his conviction, there is something to be said about lucking out with the right combination of emotions at the right time.

Do you remember that brief moment in 2015 when a woodpecker took flight with a weasel on its back? Amateur photographer Martin Le-May said he didn’t know just how remarkable his pictures were until he uploaded them at home.


Although Martin Le-May was extremely lucky to capture such a rare image, the reasons for its popularity are predictable: that emotional combination of surprise, negativity, and positivity still followed the familiar format we found to be common across pieces of viral content.

Mastering the Psychology Behind Virality

Going viral is all about understanding the emotional scales used in psychology and understanding how they speak to the broader science behind viral content. Once you do, you can apply that knowledge to your content marketing strategy and use it to strike the right emotional chords. And if all else fails, there’s always the chance you could capture a flying weasel at the right time.

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Ashlea Green is a Strategic Growth Specialist at Fractl, a boutique creative agency specializing in high-quality content creation and placement. A coffee addict by day, book junkie by night; when she’s not writing, you can find her binge-watching Harry Potter films or spoiling her little rescue dog, Shorty, absolutely rotten. You can chat with her on Twitter or LinkedIn, or check out her website.

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