If an article made readers extremely angry or highly anxious—stories about a political scandal or new risk factor for cancer, for example—they became just as likely to share it as they would a feel-good story about a cuddly panda. (In this particular study, certain pieces were coded as eliciting arousing emotions; in a follow-up, arousal was further measured physiologically.)
Berger and Milkman went on to test their findings in a more controlled setting, presenting students with content and observing their propensity to pass it along. Here, too, they found the same patterns. Amusing stories that had been chosen specifically because they were positive and arousing were shared more frequently than less amusing ones. Anger-inducing stories were shared more than moderate takes on the same events.
When the researchers manipulated the framing of a story to be either negative (a person is injured) or positive (an injured person is “trying to be better again”), they found that the positive framing made a piece far more popular. The findings have since been replicated by several independent research teams, who have found that videos that shock or inspire are more likely to be shared on Facebook and more likely to gain viral traction.
Positivity and arousal go a long way toward explaining the success of Web sites…
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