What makes an internet video go viral?

Can psychology explain viral videos?

Some internet clips like President Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign video go “viral”. Audiences reach into the millions thanks to so many people choosing to forward the link to friends.

According to a new study, the likelihood of someone choosing to forward a video depends on the emotion provoked by that clip.  Based on their findings Rosanna Guadagno and her colleagues describe what they call an “arousal hierarchy” – videos eliciting positive emotion, including joy and humour, are most likely to be forwarded; videos eliciting feelings of alertness and attentiveness are the next most likely to be forwarded. Clips that evoke negative arousal are near the bottom of the hierarchy, but still more likely to be forwarded than dull, non-emotional videos.

The researchers made their findings by recruiting 256 students to watch one of ten videos, then asking them how they felt and whether they planned to forward it to others. In an initial study there were four emotion categories: cute (e.g. a child biting his older brother in fun), funny (e.g. a cat stalking a video camera), disgusting (e.g. a woman eating a praying mantis) and anger-inducing (e.g. police tasering a student). The clips had been hits on Youtube in 2005 to 2007. There were also two boring control videos – one about cross-stitching and the other about basket making. A second study with 163 more students was similar, but this time the researchers also altered who the videos were apparently received from – someone at the same uni as the students, or from a rival uni.

Not only did the researchers find that cute and funny videos were the most likely to be forwarded, they also found a correlation between students’ reported experience of positive emotion and their stated intention to forward. On the other hand, experience of negative emotion was inversely correlated with forwarding. The fact that anger-inducing and disgusting videos were more likely to be forwarded than control videos seems to contradict these findings, but after further analysis Guadagno’s team established that the anger-inducing and disgusting videos triggered not just negative emotion but also more interest and arousal.

A detail to emerge from the manipulation of the source of the videos was that participants found anger-inducing videos more interesting when they came from a student at a different university and were more likely to forward them. Perhaps, the researchers surmised, this is because such videos were seen as a way to bolster prejudice toward out-group members.

Overall, it seems joy and humour are sure-fire ways to give a video viral potential. Videos provoking anger and disgust are also more viral than neutral videos and may have extra potential in political circumstances if they’re seen as a way to enhance in-group solidarity.

This research provides food for thought, but let’s be realistic – there’s no guaranteed recipe here for how to make a viral video. Had the researchers uncovered such a thing, they’d presumably be millionaires by now, or YouTube celebs at least. The findings about emotions are rather broad and in some cases speculative. There are also the usual concerns about relying on a student sample and generalising from a small selection of videos. We also don’t know the reasons for the students’ forwarding decisions, nor whether their real-life behaviour would have matched their stated intentions.

  ResearchBlogging.orgRosanna E. Guadagnoa, Daniel M. Rempalab, Shannon Murphyc, and Bradley M. Okdied (2013). What makes a video go viral? An analysis of emotional contagion and Internet memes. Computers in Human Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2013.04.016

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

2 thoughts on “What makes an internet video go viral?”

  1. Call me cynical, but my understanding is that videos that go viral tend to have hefty funding behind them. Not universally, of course, but the viral video has huge appeal to the advertiser. It comes with a whiff of authenticity; you're watching this video because your friends like it, not because some company wants you to watch it. That is something that advertisers will pay big money for, and they do. If I wanted to know what makes a video go viral, I'd ask someone in marketing.

  2. I agree with Rachel but since this article talking about Viral videos rather than celebrities, comercial videos or record labels

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