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Emotional Contagion Drives Social Media

Massive scale research demonstrates that we catch and spread emotions online.

Whether you know it or not, emotion has the first and final word in all of our behaviors, especially when it comes to engaging with images, videos, and posts on social media. From arousing our attention to compelling us to click, our feelings (not the facts) make the World Wide Web go ‘round.

It’s no surprise that both “motivation” and “emotion” share the same Latin root, “movere,” which means, “to move,” suggesting that inherent in every emotion is a potential for action. And likewise, a strategy is a plan of action. In order to develop the types of strategies that will move an audience to pay attention, we have to trigger their emotions, which according to the acclaimed neuroscientist Antonio Damasio “are automatic action programs,” guiding us from threat and toward opportunity without employing conscious thought.[1]

In the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day lives, we pay attention to the things that are important to our survival and our success. Our emotions lead us at every turn. They direct our focus, create meaning, and assign value to the plethora of messages on the Internet, which would otherwise overload our critical mind.

Emotions don’t exist for the sake of our amusement or even for heartwarming sentiment. Over the millennia, emotions have evolved to help humans avoid harm, informing our brains and preparing our bodies for “fight or flight” at the simplest trigger. Humans have little choice over how that trigger is pulled or when we are overtaken by the emotions of fear and anger, all of which are driven by the autonomic nervous system.

This is the phenomenon of emotional contagion, the idea that emotional states and related behaviors can spread rapidly among people without their awareness. From an evolutionary perspective, it served early humans by enabling them to cooperate and understand each other. Emotional contagion was also essential to the survival of our early ancestors by spreading emotional arousal within a prey group and allowing people to escape danger.

A research study led by University of Texas social psychologist Rosanna Guadagno found that the more intense the emotional response the more likely research participants were to pass along a video to others, regardless of whether or not it made them feel happy or sad. The researchers defined this experience as emotional contagion.[2]

Today even in the absence of face-to-face interactions (and saber-toothed cats), emotional contagion is alive and thriving in the Digital Era on social media, much as it did on the grassy plains of equatorial Africa during the Paleolithic Era. A massive (yet controversial) research study conducted by social scientists at Cornell University, the University of California, San Francisco and Facebook, reported that “emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.” The study manipulated the number of positive and negative posts 689,003 Facebook users saw in their feeds and found that it influenced the nature of the content of their subsequent posts. When Facebook removed positive posts from the feed, users were more likely to post fewer positive posts and more negative ones. And when negative posts were removed, the opposite happened.[3]

If emotions exist to move us to survive and thrive, it would make sense that we have the greatest levels of emotional arousal to the things that drive our evolution, both in terms of our wellbeing and productivity as people. Those most powerful and fundamental strivings are what drives attention, and certain videos, ads and memes to the top of the viral chart.

While there is a myriad of different ways and emotions to activate the kneejerk reactions of virality, there are only six basic human needs from which all viral content emerges. By identifying these need states, we can codify them into an actionable framework, a strategy so to speak, to better focus our efforts on the hot buttons that not only trigger emotional sensitivity but impact our behaviors. These patterns are effective in our media markets because they are effective patterns hardwired into human nature.

I call these six basic evolutionary human needs The Six S’s to Success, i.e., Survival, Surprise, Sustenance, Sex, Small Fry and Status.

Today I’ll introduce Surprise. Perhaps the most powerful ‘S’, nothing draws a human’s attention like the element of surprise. It is how people learn, forcing us to pay attention to novel and potentially important information. Since brands are learned behaviors, surprise is one of the most important tools in building awareness and making something go viral. So it should come as no surprise that attention is the most valuable commodity in marketing today. We don’t consciously choose which posts to engage with and share. What determines our focus occurs at a deeper level driven by the emotion of surprise. And there happens to be a formula for activating surprise and the awareness it commands. It’s called pattern interruption. That’s because the mind is a prediction machine that works through a process of pattern recognition. And since our attention span is so limited, we only notice the things that defy our predictions.

Our minds are designed to scan the environment for contrast and conflict, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the Internet has spawned its own viral language of improper spelling and grammar for memes or brands from “I can has cheezburger” to the Flickr photo sharing app. If your content interrupts an expected perceptual or behavioral pattern, you can set the stage for virality by creating what is essentially a forced exposure. Being different can be better than being better, because without uniqueness you may never be noticed.





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