It starts, of course, on Facebook. I notice Caitlin posting a video she’d found online. It’s boring: a kid playing in a driveway in a suburb. “Maybe that’s because I had a baby and I’m crazy hormonal,” she writes, “but this totally made me cry with relief at the end.”
I don’t usually click, but Caitlin is a tough, no-nonsense girl. As a NGO director, she’s faced down insurgents in Afghanistan and warlords in the Congo. She’s not a woman who cries easily. And so I click.
The video begins with just a kid playing in a driveway. Suddenly, a vicious dog attacks the helpless child. But then, a cat runs out to attack the dog. Tara, our feline hero, stays intrepid and fends off the dog as the kid continues to be attacked. Finally, the mutt backs down and runs away. Not without injury — we see the child’s shocking wounds. The events takes place within a minute, but it packs a feature film’s worth of shock and relief.
It’s no surprise the video went viral: it evoked strong, intense emotions. But it’s not shocking content that cause people to share — scientists are beginning to understand the role viral content plays in psychology, and the value we get out of watching and sharing it.
If information is the bedrock of the Internet, then viral content is its lifeblood, the circulatory system that keeps us engaged with it, going back again and again for a hit of intrigue and interest. It’s not enough just to put something on the Internet — if it’s not being shared, then it really doesn’t exist.
But not everything goes viral, of course. One might think the recipe for virality is easy: one part humor, one part pathos, and then, add a cute kitten. But that’s simply not true. Just search YouTube for “cute kittens” to see how many felines languish adorably in pre-viral purgatory. What makes one video irresistible to the masses?
You might think the X-factor is humor, and we do prefer funny over depressing or boring. According to Psychology Today, people will forward a funny video more often than say, a man treating a spider bite. But humor only goes so far, if only because not everyone laughs at the same thing. Before the Internet, Hollywood long learned that comedies often don’t have transatlantic appeal, and hence, don’t make good exports to foreign markets. That partly explains why action and adventure thriller films are so big in Hollywood — they translate well to nearly all markets.
What does translate well? Emotions — whether it’s anger, sadness or happiness. Experts of all kinds, ranging from scientists to psychologists, are only beginning to understand the psychology of viral videos, but at the heart of most studies is genuine emotional reaction. And it’s not just emotion, but the degree of its intensity — it has to be strong, researchers of all stripes found.
“People share things they have strong emotional reactions to, especially strong positive reactions,” Rosanna Guadagno, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Dallas, told the New York Times.
Perhaps that explains why the video “Unsung Hero,” by Thai Life Insurance, became a global sensation. The video shows a man indulging in random acts of kindness: watering a wilted plant, helping a street food vendor push a cart and sharing his lunch with a hungry dog. Onlookers shake their heads in skepticism at his generosity, but it pays off: he gives money to a beggar and her daughter only to discover she’s able to go to school.
In a voice-over, the video asks: “What does his man get in return?” The answer: “What he does receive are emotions… He witnesses happiness.”
He receives positive emotions, but as viewers, we receive them as well, along with the positive message that generosity makes for a more beautiful world — a near-universal truism found across different religions, tribes, credos and belief systems. The company is barely mentioned in the ad, and the video takes place entirely in Thai — but the heartwarming, tear-jerking images and story hit a cross-cultural nerve that transcended borders into truly world-wide viral fame.
The Thai Life Insurance tearjerker also offers another lesson on virality: you just can’t spark strong emotion and then leave viewers hanging — you have to allow viewers to walk away with something meaningful and preferably positive. Even if something is sad by nature, what makes it spread isn’t the sadness, but the uplifting emotion and message it leaves you with at the end.
We prefer strong emotion with a little feel-good message. According to the New York Times, uplifting articles are more likely to land on its most-emailed list instead of disheartening ones. But readers also e-mail more outraged stories than when depressing ones. It’s not enough to evoke strong emotion — viral content needs to shape those strong, inchoate emotions into meaning, through insight, action or uplift.
Beyond emotions, a viral video needs the element of surprise. Take the video of the cat hero, for example. While the violence of the dog is shocking and the relief of the child being saved genuine, it’s the surprises that upends our ideas and expectations. We expect dogs to be man’s best friend and cats to be aloof, but the video reverses that idea — here, it’s the dog that attacks and the cat that saves the day. The fact that it’s real further adds to the shock, propelling it across not just Facebook, but also on television, as well.
Strong emotional complexity and intense viewer reaction — along with some wisdom and insight — are the ingredients of viral videos. But content is not just the only element to virality, and scientists are looking at how and when we share content for clues. Social sharing in part has taken off not just because we have content to share, but because we get something out of it. We share for deep, subtle psychological reasons like identity and connection.
Researchers have discovered, for example, that emotions are especially contagious online. Feelings are themselves viral, and like the flu, we “catch” from one another. The process of “emotional contagion” happens in real life — witness how a cashier’s bad mood at the store can affect you at the next place — but feelings can also be transmitted online.
According to the Wall Street Journal, researchers at the University of California San Diego and Yale surveyed over 100 million people on Facebook, studying what content people shared. They found that when we vent on a rainy day, our friends in other cities post bleak status updates more frequently than normal. But positive updates are even more contagious, prompting upbeat updates from friends at even greater rates.
“We wanted to see if emotional changes in one person caused emotional changes in another person and that’s exactly what we found,” James Fowler, a UCSD political scientist, told the Wall Street Journal.
The contagiousness of emotion partly explains why self-indulgent or moody updates from toxic Facebook friends can put us in a bad mood, even though we’re miles away. While it’s worth carefully curating the online content we consume, the study doesn’t look at what role sharing itself plays in the process. We understand why someone’s positive message or uplifting video share makes us feel good — but what compels us to like or share something?
One simple reason is that sharing is a way to process the strong emotions people have when watching particularly strong viral content. On a basic physiological level, strong emotion arouses us, whether it results in tears or a beating heart of anger — and so we discharge that emotion through sharing. “Arousal is an aversive state, so people want to get out of it by sharing,” Jonah Berger told the New York Times.
Emerging neuroscience also offers us intriguing clues into why content is viral and why we simply have to share it. According to one small study conducted at Emory University, particularly successful online content lights up activity in three particular brain regions: the ventral striatum, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), and the cuneus, all of which have been associated with discerning value. These areas, for instance, light up at the possibility of getting $20 worth of value in a transaction instead of $10.
If content can spark activity in these areas, chances are good it will be successful in getting people’s attention. The Emory study allowed teens, for instance, to listen to 15-second song clips and then rate which songs they liked. The study then looked at sales of the songs three years later — and discovered the most successful songs were not the ones most “liked” by the teens, but the ones that fired up their ventral striatums, according to Psychology Today. Somehow, we perceive successful media and content as more “valuable” than other pieces of information.
Value doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and if we’re not making money from sharing viral content, then what value do we get out of sharing it? Another neurological study offers a clue into this mystery. In their experiment, UCLA psychology professors Matt Lieberman and Emily Falk gave students a series of film idea “pitches” to talk over, filmed the discussions of their strong and weak points and then showed the video to other undergraduates, who rated whether or not they would make the films and tell others about them. The professors then ranked the ideas in terms of their success.
Brain scans of the students revealed a surprising finding: the winning ideas had little to do with the stories themselves or how they were discussed or pitched. Instead, all of them lit up one region of the brain — the bilateral TPJ, which focuses us on the attention and thoughts of other people. The bilateral TPJ is part of the “mentalizing network” of the brain, and successful online “buzz” activates this part of the brain when it first receives the initial idea.
“We kind of thought that while someone was in the scanner, someone would activate brain regions in committing things to memory or processing things deeply, and then the things that you processed more deeply you would be better at communicating,” Lieberman told Fast Company. “Instead, we see this network associated with thinking about the minds of other people. I don’t think we realize that we’re filtering ideas about the world in that way.”
On a simple level, perhaps viral content becomes viral because often gets shared because we think it’ll appear a certain way to other people. But scientists don’t think it’s as easy as that, and are only just beginning to explore how the mentalizing network works.
They’ve discovered, for instance, that this network activates automatically as a reflex whenever you finish a mental activity. Mentalization, too, is a key component of altruism, empathy and connection — we put ourselves in other people’s minds to better understand them. This “social lens” is only just beginning to be understood in a larger context of evolution, according to the UCLA scientists.
Somehow, then, viral videos become viral because we somehow understand what value our communities will get out of it — and sharing it strengthens our communities and the roles we play within it, sharpens our evolving “social lens” and plays a role in the evolution of the human race as a connected entity.
The results of scientists’ research might just change the way we make and receive advertising in the future, and their discoveries will likely help make a lot of money for companies and people able to harness their insight.
After all, a video going viral is like hitting the jackpot or winning the lottery: it can net a lot of money. The cat-hero video could earn a range of $6,000 to $50,000 in advertising revenue, according to MarketWatch. If it hits a hundred million views, it could be worth up to $30,000 to $250,000 for the video’s creator.
Even now, the Holy Grail for a TV ad is achieving viral status. Unruly, a marketing technology company that tracks the virality of ads, followed the online performance of 14 ads that aired during the Super Bowl, according to Time.
The results mirror what we’ve learned so far about successful viral content. Unruly discovered funny ads don’t get shared as much. The ads that did get shared? Anything that sparks responses of happiness, warmth and sadness, such as Budweiser’s ads “Puppy Love” and “A Hero’s Welcome” ad about war veterans returning home. Coca-Cola’s “It’s Beautiful,” a serious ad featuring a diverse cast singing “America the Beautiful,” was third.
What those ads all share is a sense of sincerity and genuine emotion. The most shared Super Bowl ads aren’t afraid to risk being seen as sappy or corny. They instead try to hit emotions like tenderness and loyalty — and for the most part, they succeeded, and were shared around the world via social media and YouTube.
“There’s no point being merely amusing,” Unruly writes in its report. “Choose the psychological responses your video should elicit and work them to the max.”
Internet culture can create information overload, distraction and stress, but perhaps the new information and research emerging about viral content offers us a glimmer of possibility and hope over the role technology has in our evolution as a species.
The fact that emotions like tenderness, kindness and generosity continue to play successfully across communities and countries — and the fact that we’re compelled for whatever reason to share them, transmitting positive feelings — may give us a clue that humankind is intrinsically good and hopeful in nature, able to find the heroism in a cat or the fellowship between a horse and a puppy.
Media often inundates us with sights and news of disaster, so the grassroots elevation of more uplifting content perhaps offers evidence that our best impulses haven’t been beat out of us. So while I’m not one for sharing on Facebook — or being on the network much at all — I couldn’t help but “like” the Tara the heroic cat video or share the Thai Life Insurance video. It might brighten someone’s day, after all, and maybe in the end, all those bright moments add up to something worthwhile.