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Why Can’t You Stop Hitting Share? Unveiling the Psychology of Viral Content

Have you ever found yourself scrolling through your social media feed, only to be captivated by a heartwarming video, a hilarious meme, or a thought-provoking article? Before you know it, you’ve clicked that elusive “share” button, contributing to the ever-growing avalanche of viral content flooding the digital landscape. But what exactly drives this urge to share? And why do some pieces of content spread like wildfire while others languish in obscurity?

In this blog, we’re going to take a deep dive into the psychology behind viral content, unravelling the intricate web of emotions, social pressures, and cognitive biases that influence our sharing behavior. From the irresistible power of emotions to the subtle nudges of societal pressures and the mind’s shortcuts through cognitive biases, we’ll explore the fascinating mechanisms that underpin the phenomenon of virality.

The Irresistible Power of Emotions: A Symphony of Feelings

Emotions are the lifeblood of viral content. Whether it’s a heartwarming tale that brings tears to your eyes or a hilarious video that leaves you in stitches, content that evokes strong emotions are far more likely to be shared across social media platforms. According to a comprehensive analysis by Fractl in 2016, emotions like amusement, interest, surprise, happiness, and delight reign supreme when it comes to driving virality.

Take, for instance, the viral sensation of 2020: the video of a toddler sharing his birthday cake with a dog. In just a few heartwarming seconds, this clip managed to capture the essence of kindness and compassion, eliciting an outpouring of emotion from viewers worldwide. It’s a prime example of how positive emotions can fuel the viral engine, compelling us to hit that share button without a second thought.

But emotions aren’t limited to just warm fuzzies and happy tears. Negative emotions like anger and fear can also play a significant role in content virality. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2015 suggests that content that evokes anger is more likely to be shared. Why? Because it provides an outlet for expressing outrage and mobilizing others to action. Whether it’s a video exposing social injustice or a heartfelt plea for change, content that taps into our deepest emotions has the power to spark movements and ignite change.

psychology viral content

Societal Pressures: Sharing as Social Currency

Humans are inherently social beings, driven by a primal desire to connect and belong. Sharing content on social media allows us to showcase our identity, values, and interests to the world. It shapes how others perceive us and fosters a sense of belonging within our social circles. A study in Social Psychology and Personality Science found that people are significantly more likely to share content that reflects positively on themselves or their social groups, highlighting the role of sharing as a form of social currency.

Think about the last time you shared an infographic or article that resonated with your beliefs or interests. Whether it’s a piece on environmental conservation or a deep dive into your favorite niche hobby, sharing content that aligns with your identity helps to reinforce your sense of self and connect with like-minded individuals. It’s a subtle yet powerful form of social validation that drives our sharing behavior on social media platforms.

But societal pressures don’t just stem from within. They’re also influenced by external factors like social proof and platform algorithms. Research from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that people are more likely to share content when they see others engaging with it, thanks to the bandwagon effect—a cognitive bias that makes us believe popular content must be valuable. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram further amplify these pressures through algorithms that prioritize content with high engagement metrics. This phenomenon creates a feedback loop where popular content begets even more shares.

Cognitive Biases: The Mind’s Shortcuts and Sharing Mishaps

Our brains are wired with cognitive biases—mental shortcuts that help us navigate the complexities of the world around us. While these biases can be incredibly useful in certain situations, they can also lead us astray when it comes to sharing content online. Take, for example, the bandwagon effect, which predisposes us to follow the crowd and assume that content with high engagement must be valuable. Research published in Computers in Human Behavior found that the number of social media likes a post receives significantly impacts its likelihood of being shared. This highlights the power of social proof in influencing our online behavior.

Then there’s confirmation bias. It leads us to favor information that confirms our existing beliefs and worldview. Content that aligns with our preconceived notions is more likely to be shared because it reinforces our sense of being right. Think back to the flood of political memes that inundated social media feeds during the last election cycle. Confirmation bias fueled their spread as people eagerly shared content that validated their political leanings, regardless of its factual accuracy.


Clickbait vs. Genuine Content: Understanding the Nuance

Clickbait headlines like “You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!” exploit curiosity. But it often disappoint with misleading content as well. While they may get initial clicks, they rarely achieve true virality because they lack substance.

Genuine viral content offers value, entertainment, or emotional connection. It leaves a lasting impression and compels users to share it organically, not out of a feeling of being tricked.

Take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge for example. It wasn’t just about dumping ice water on oneself. It raised awareness for a serious illness. The challenge was fun, and impactful and sparked meaningful conversations, leading to its massive virality.

Unlocking the Secrets of Viral Content: A Playbook for Shareable Success

Understanding the psychology behind viral content empowers you to create content that not only gets seen but ignites a spark that compels sharing. Here’s how to leverage these insights to craft content that resonates with your audience and travels far and wide across the digital landscape:

 Tap into the Emotional Rollercoaster:

People are wired to respond to emotions. Content that evokes laughter, surprise, heartwarming feelings, or even a touch of awe is significantly more likely to be shared. 

 Offer Value or Entertainment: A Win-Win Proposition

Great content provides value to your audience:

  • inform them with educational content
  • equip them with life hacks
  • entertain them with funny stories or visually captivating videos.

People are more likely to share content they find genuinely useful or enjoyable.

 Foster Social Connection: Building Bridges Through Content

Social media is all about connection. Create content that allows people to connect with their communities or showcase their values. This could be:

  • infographics about environmental issues that spark conversations about sustainability
  • heartwarming stories about overcoming adversity that inspire and uplift
  • etc…

When your content fosters a sense of community or belonging, it becomes more likely to be shared.

 Embrace Authenticity: Be You, Be Real, Be Shareable

People can spot clickbait a mile away. Avoid misleading headlines and content that promises more than it delivers. Focus on creating genuine content that resonates with your target audience. Authenticity builds trust and encourages long-term engagement, increasing the likelihood that people will share your content because they believe in you and your message.

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 Bonus Tip: Optimize for Discovery

While emotions, social pressures, and cognitive biases play a significant role in virality, don’t underestimate the importance of technical SEO (Search Engine Optimization). To increase the discoverability of your content and reach a wider audience, you can :

  • utilize relevant keywords
  • craft compelling headlines
  • optimize your content for social media sharing.

By following these tips and understanding the psychology behind the “share” button, you can create content that sparks conversation and ignites emotions.  But it can also compel your audience to become your biggest advocates in the digital world.


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Conclusion – The Psychology behind Viral Content

In conclusion, the psychology behind viral content is a complex tapestry of emotions, social pressures, and cognitive biases that shape our online behavior in profound ways. By understanding these psychological mechanisms, content creators can craft content that resonates deeply with their audience, driving engagement, and amplifying reach across the digital landscape. So, the next time you find yourself mindlessly clicking that share button, take a moment to consider the psychology at play behind your actions—and remember, the power of virality lies within every one of us.

By understanding the “why” behind the share button, you can craft content that not only gets clicks but ignites a spark that makes it travel far and wide across the digital landscape.

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