These Scientists Studied Why Internet Stories Go Viral. You Won't Believe What They Found

Science confirms what Buzzfeed and Upworthy already know: In the hierarchy of digital contagion, content that evokes powerful emotions floats mercilessly to the top.

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal profiled Gawker editor Neetzan Zimmerman, whose job is to post content that's poised to go viral. Zimmerman does his job quite well. His posts generate about 30 million pageviews a month--tops at the site by far, six times what the second-leading staffer generates. Zimmerman's success is not the result of some computer formula; on the contrary, rather, "he understands the emotions that might compel a human being to click on something online," the Journal's Farhad Manjoo writes.

If the traffic numbers don't already show the wisdom of Zimmerman's approach, the behavioral evidence certainly does. Recent research suggests that emotions hold the secret to viral web content. Articles, posts, or videos that evoke positive emotions have greater viral potential than something that evokes negative feelings, but both do a better job recruiting clicks than neutral content. The finer details tell a similar story: triggering high-arousal emotions, such as anger or humor, is a surer path to click gold than triggering low-arousal ones, such as contentment or sadness.

Take a recent a study published in the November issue of Computers in Human Behavior. A research team led by Rosanna E. Guadagno of the National Science Foundation showed 256 test participants one video from a collection that spanned the emotional spectrum. Some saw a cute or funny clip that had gone viral on YouTube. Others saw a hit that evoked anger or disgust. Still others saw a neutral video about basket-weaving.

After the viewing, participants were asked whether or not they would share that video with someone else. Those who'd seen the funny or cute video were significantly more likely to say they'd forward it than any of the other test participants. Those who'd seen the video causing anger or disgust were significantly more likely to say the same than those who'd seen the neutral clip. A follow-up test with 163 more participants found the same pattern of viral potential: positive emotions best negative ones, any emotion bests none at all.

Part of what makes emotional content so susceptible to spreading is that emotions themselves are contagious. Researchers have long known that people can "catch" the emotions of someone around them, so to speak, through direct exposure to that person's expressions and tones and gestures. They also believe this process of emotional contagion can occur indirectly--say, by receiving a forwarded video clip or article.

The physiological arousal produced by certain emotions may also help explain why some web content goes viral and some doesn't. A few years ago, Wharton behavioral scholars Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman analyzed roughly 7,000 articles that appeared on the New York Times website to see which ones made the "most emailed" list. After controlling for factors like page prominence and author fame, the researchers found that emotional content indeed went viral more often than non-emotional pieces.

But Berger and Milkman didn't stop their analysis there. Within the emotional articles, they recognized that content evoking high-arousal emotions (in this case, awe, anger, and anxiety, emotions that tend to whip us into action) went viral more often than articles evoking a low-arousal emotion (sadness, an emotion that often leaves us subdued). The odds that an article would end up on the "most emailed" list increased 34% when it elicited one standard deviation more anger, the equivalent of letting the article spend an extra 3 hours as the lead story on the Times website.

Berger, author of the 2013 book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, extended this finding even further during a separate laboratory study. He asked some test participants to sit still before reading a neutral article, and asked others to jog in place for a minute before reading the same piece. Then he gave both groups the option of emailing the article to someone else. Three-quarters of the joggers forwarded it against only a third of the sitters--a further sign, in Berger's eyes, that arousal plays a major role in social transmission.

"More arousing content should be more likely to spread quickly on the Internet and should be more likely to capture public attention," he concluded in Psychological Science.

Knowing that emotional arousal contributes to digital contagion should help designers and other creative types craft catchier content (if that's their goal). Public officials might take note, too, especially as they try to distribute information through service announcements that tend to be dry by nature. A public health spot that evokes sadness, for instance, may be less likely to make the rounds than something that causes angst or indignation--though both should be more effective than something safe.

Then again, many factors influence whether or not something goes viral. Interesting content is a must, and catching the eye of a major Twitter personality can't hurt. A heavy marketing push can also boost a video's exposure; (in fact, one of Neetzan Zimmerman's biggest fears, according to the Journal, is that advertisers will co-opt viral news). And, of course, there's the difficulty in evoking strong feelings in the first place. It's one thing to understand the emotions that compel a person to click. It's another thing entirely to produce them.

[Image: Cat via Shutterstock]

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