3810233454_10cbc36346Every day it seems like we feel hundreds of different emotions – each nuanced and specific to the physical and social situations we find ourselves in.

According to science, it’s not that complicated by a long shot. A new study says we’re really only capable of four “basic” emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted.

But much like the “mother sauces” of cooking allow you to make pretty much any kind of food under the sun, these four “mother emotions” meld together in myriad ways in our brains to create our layered emotional stews.

Robert Plutchik’s famous “wheel of emotions” shows just some of the well known emotional layers.

In this post we’ll take a close look at each of the four emotions, how they form in the brain and the way they can motivate us to surprising actions.

Happiness makes us want to share

Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott discovered that our first emotional action in life is to respond to our mother’s smile with a smile of our own. Obviously, joy and happiness are hard-wired into all of us.

The left pre-frontal cortex of the brain is where happiness traits like optimism and resilience live. A study done at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience watched Buddhist Monks and found that the left prefrontal lobe of their brains lit up as they entered a blissful state of meditation.

Other than making us … well, happy … joy can also be a driver of action. Winnicott’s discovery of a baby’s “social smile” also tells us that joy increases when it is shared.

No wonder, then, that happiness is the main driver for social media sharing. Emotions layered with and related to happiness make up the majority of this list of the top drivers of viral content as studied by Fractl.

top 10 emotions for sharing

Here’s what Fractl’s study of top emotional drivers looks like overlaid on the emotion wheel:

Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, studied nearly 7,000 articles in The New York Times to determine what was special about those on the most-emailed list. He found that an article was more likely to become viral the more positive it was.

Google’s Abigail Posner describes this urge as an “energy exchange:”

“When we see or create an image that enlivens us, we send it to others to give them a bit of energy and effervescence. Every gift holds the spirit of the gifter. Also, every image reminds us and others that we’re alive, happy and full of energy (even if we may not always feel that way). And when we ‘like’ or comment on a picture or video sent to us, we’re sending a gift of sorts back to the sender. We’re affirming them. But, most profoundly, this ‘gift’ of sharing contributes to an energy exchange that amplifies our own pleasure – and is something we’re hardwired to do.”

Sadness helps us connect and empathize

Perhaps fitting if one looks at sadness as the other side of happiness, the emotions of sadness and sorrow light up many of the same regions of the brain as happiness.


But when the brain feels sadness, it also produces particular neurochemicals. A study by Paul Zak looked at two interesting ones in particular.

Zak has study participants watch a short, sad story about a boy with cancer.

As they experienced the story, the participants produced cortisol, known as the “stress hormone”; and oxytocin, a hormone that promotes connection and empathy. Later, those who produced the most oxytocin were the most likely to give money to others they couldn’t see.

Zak posits that oxytocin’s ability to help us create understanding and empathy may also make us more generous and trusting. In a different study, participants under the influence of oxytocin gave more money to charity than those not exposed to the chemical.

“Our results show why puppies and babies are in toilet paper commercials,” Zak said. “This research suggests that advertisers use images that cause our brains to release oxytocin to build trust in a product or brand, and hence increase sales.”

Fear/surprise make us desperate for something to cling to

Although those who are prone to anxiety, fear and depression also exhibit a higher ratio of activity in the right prefrontal cortex, the emotion of fear is mostly controlled by a small, almond-shaped structure in the brain called the amygdala (seen below).

The amygdala helps us determine the significance of any scary event and decides how we respond (fight or flight). But fear can also cause another response that might be interesting to marketers in particular.

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrated that consumers who experienced fear while watching a film felt a greater affiliation with a present brand than those who watched films evoking other emotions, like happiness, sadness or excitement.

The theory is that when we’re scared, we need to share the experience with others – and if no one else is around, even a non-human brand will do. Fear can stimulate people to report greater brand attachment.

“People cope with fear by bonding with other people. When watching a scary movie they look at each other and say ‘Oh my god!’ and their connection is enhanced,” says study author Lea Dunn. “But, in the absence of friends, our study shows consumers will create heightened emotional attachment with a brand that happens to be on hand.”

Anger/disgust make us more stubborn

The hypothalamus is responsible for anger, along with a lot of other base level needs like hunger, thirst, response to pain and sexual satisfaction.

And while anger can lead to other emotions like aggression, it can also create a curious form of stubbornness online, as a recent University of Wisconsin study discovered.

In it, participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology. The body of the post was the same for everyone, but one group got civil comments below the article while another got rude comments that involved name-calling and more anger-inducing language.

The rude comments made participants dig in on their stance: Those who thought nanotechnology risks were low became more sure of themselves when exposed to the rude comments, while those who believed otherwise moved further in that direction.

Even more interesting is what happened to those who previously didn’t feel one way or another about nanotechnology. The civil group had no change of opinion.

Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they’d previously thought.

So negativity has a real and lasting effect – and it’s evident in how content gets shared, too. In the previously mentioned New York Times viral content study, some negative emotions are positively associated with virality – most specifically, anger.

Why emotions are important in marketing

What does all this teach us as social media sharers and marketers? That emotions are critical – maybe even more than previously thought – to marketing.

In an analysis of the IPA dataBANK, which contains 1,400 case studies of successful advertising campaigns, campaigns with purely emotional content performed about twice as well (31% vs. 16%) as those with only rational content (and did a little better than those that mixed emotional and rational content).

That makes sense based on what scientists know about the brain now – that people feel first, and think second. The emotional brain processes sensory information in one fifth of the time our cognitive brain takes to assimilate the same input.

And since emotions remain tied to base evolutionary processes that have kept humans safe for centuries, like detecting anger or fear, they’re so primal that we’ll always be wired to pay attention to them – often with surprisingly powerful results.

Like this one: In a twist on the customer survey, Generac, a standby generator manufacturer, asked some of their customers to draw their experience with the generators.

As reported in the Harvard Business review:

They saw men drawing their generators as superheroes protecting their family, and women drawing the fear of being without one like sinking on the Titanic. This exercise led them to change their marketing from technical specs to testimonials of real consumers telling their stories of how Generac saved their lives and homes. It has helped their business double in the last 2 years to $1.2 billion.

Emotion – the feeling of overcoming a primal fear – was the driver that moved their customers.

That’s why Google’s Abigail Posner says we can’t underestimate the importance of understanding the science of emotion in marketing:

“Understand the emotional appeal and key drivers behind the discovery, viewing, sharing and creation of online video, photography and visual content….In the language of the visual web, when we share a video or an image, we’re not just sharing the object, but we’re sharing in the emotional response it creates.”

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like The Science Behind What Motivates us to Get Up for Work Every Day and How To Make Positivity a Habit: 4 Simple Steps to a Happier Everyday Life.

Image credits: somegeekintnWikimedia CommonsFractlCarnegie MellonInsideOut WellnessMozNeuroscience Marketing

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • I enjoyed reading this article; it had the right balance of scientific and marketing research complementing each other.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Very glad to hear that; sometimes it can be tricky to strike that balance!

  • Wow, what a great article! Thanks to “perky” Courtney Seiter for that!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Haha! Thanks 🙂

  • Mark Dungan

    Great piece Courtney. Clear, concise and useable information.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thanks so much!

  • Great article. Interesting how human nature compels us, and important to understand as a marketer. Thanks!

    • Courtney Seiter

      I find all these studies fascinating. Glad you did, too!

  • Courtney — this is a fantastic piece! Nice compilation of research. Paul Zak’s work is pretty amazing. You might also like Daniel Siegel’s work. Check out his book “The Neurobiology of We”.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Oooh, sounds good–will definitely check it out!

  • M. Philip Oliver

    Think You’d appreciate @BradStone’s “The everything store”; 2013; 381,45-dewey; “Jeff Bezos And The Age of Amazon”.

    • Courtney Seiter

      That’s a popular one in Buffer’s free Kindle books program. Will have to check it out!

      • M. Philip Oliver

        You won’t be disappointed; except for the first 167 pages (ha ha).

  • M. Philip Oliver

    Appreciated Your “perky posting”!

  • I realized I had to shift one of the emotion wheels by 45 degrees to make them line up. That led me to “Annoyance.”

    But once I did that, I read this with “Interest” & “Acceptance.”

    • Courtney Seiter

      Ha! It’s a nice feeling to be able to place yourself on the chart. 😉 Glad you’re doing OK!

  • Hello Courtney, this is an awesome piece! This is actually the first time I’ve read about the connection of emotions and social media sharing. And it really got me thinking too. I analyzed myself and what emotions brought me to share a post online. I didn’t know it had any scientific basis, but I’m happy it did! I’m happy reading this so I’m definitely sharing. Thanks!

    • Courtney Seiter

      It’s interesting to think about, isn’t it? I’m reading Jonah Berger’s “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” (briefly mentioned in the post) right now, and it really gets you thinking about the reasons behind why you share information. Thanks for reading!

  • Andy Capaloff

    Wow, what a piece! Just superb! Thank you!

  • @courtneyseiter:disqus – exceptional!! Well-researched and highly informative. Two thumbs way up! Love your perkiness. 🙂

    • Courtney Seiter

      Hi Mari! So nice to see you around these parts, and thanks so much! I always learn a ton from your posts, so I’m happy to return some value!

  • Just brilliant. Brilliant. Great content. Thank you, Courtney!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thank YOU, Lisa!

  • Lone

    Great artice. Thanks!

  • Thank you, @courtneyseiter:disqus, for a great article! Any advice on how to start integrating emotion into your content when most posts have been more rational than emotional?

    • Courtney Seiter

      Great question! That sounds like a whole blog post unto itself! I really liked the “psychological drawings” strategy (briefly mentioned towards the end of the piece). Wonder if that would be a good place to start?

      • Thanks, @courtneyseiter:disqus. That would be a good place to start. If you can connect generators to an emotion, then I guess this could work for almost any product or service. This also seems like it would make a great customer participation campaign through social media.

        • Julia Spano

          @dracedwards:disqus @courtneyseiter:disqus
          Hi all, I happen to work for a company called Persado whose core technology is geared at programmatically uncovering the words and phrases (specifically emotions) that drive consumers to respond. An emotional ontology has been created to allow our model to effectively parse through hundreds of thousands of ways to convey emotions and utilize them within marketing campaigns. I encourage you to take a look at our company if this is a topic of interest to you.


  • Such a wonderfully outlined, informative post, Courtney! Thank you so much for putting this together. I often wonder why people don’t invest their time in reading articles like this. Psychology is SO important to ANYTHING you do!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Agreed, and it’s also so fascinating to study!

      • pashmi bose

        Ooh! sound good ! I enjoyed reading it very much !!! Just brilliant ! Sharing… Thanks for reading. Courtney Seiter

    • Vladislav Vladimirov

      “While the great popularity of psychology certainly indicates an interest in the knowledge of man, it also betrays the fundamental lack of love in human relations today.” ~ Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

  • Zzzzzzzzz

    Not much better than a boring, monotonous high school essay. What grade did your teacher give you on this?

  • Martin Faktor

    Why didn’t you end your article with references and sources? I have no way of getting to the source of this information and checking upon it.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Hi Martin! Great question. Everywhere I list or discuss a study or fact, there should be a link to it close by so you can dig deeper into the research. I can see how footnotes might be convenient as well; maybe that’s something to look into for the future!

  • Thanks for sharing Courtney.
    Have you see what GetSmily is trying to achieve with its simple widget (https://www.getsmily.com/start)?
    It is basically a wheel of emotional feedback that has strong scientific background and anchorage and which helps companies to better understand what triggers emotions on their digital platforms. Would be very glad to get your views on this…
    Best Regards,
    David Hachez – co-founder

    • Courtney Seiter

      Very interesting; will check it out!

  • Kirby Wadsworth

    Courtney – awesome insights – you are a kindred spirit. Wish we had interviewed you for the first book, will absolutely have you in the followup second. @_jasonthibeault http://www.recommendthisbook.com

  • In the words of Master Yoda “Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down
    the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny…..”

    With the rise of social media and the app economy we are also seeing a commensurate rise in the use of ‘skinner box marketing’ or operant conditioning applied to commercial marketing. Pushing the buttons of emotion may be transactionally ‘effective’ as the author indicates, but wholly immoral and unethical (and ultimately counter-productive) on many levels.

    The current devolution of downstream marketing and 1-to-1 digital marketing into ‘skinner box marketing’ is what is behind the programmatic invasion of privacy of companies like Google (quoted above by the way as a role model) and others—And the anti-privacy-invasion marketing campaigns we have witnessed in recent times (e.g. Microsoft’s Scroogled campaign) indicate that more than a few people really don’t want ’emotion’ in the marketing mix.

    On another level, when the marketing boots on the ground focus on emotion as core ingredient of their planning, what often gets left behind are the basics like ‘value proposition’, ‘ROI’, ‘partner ecosystem attractors’ and other fundamentals of good product marketing.

    My own inclination here is self-evident—If I see a product or service over-focused on appealing to emotion or wrapped in the baggage of emotional iconography—I assume the worst and think there’s a problem with the offering itself. You could argue that I’m simply subliminally reacting to a poorly executed ’emotion triggering’ campaign but I think not.

    As the poster child of emotion-power taglines says, “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else there’s Mastercard.”

    I really don’t want a lot of programmable emotion in the ‘everything else’ overlapping with the ‘some things money can’t buy’.

    There is a famous female character in William Gibson’s novels named Cayce Pollard. She has an allergy to all branding campaigns and brand logos. I tip in her direction.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thanks for your insightful comment. Using emotion is definitely slippery territory for marketers, especially now that science is showing us just how powerful the triggers can be. I think the knowledge humanity can gain outweighs the potential misuses, but I certainly see your point of view.

      • Thanks for weighing in. As I pointed out, the ’emotion’ thing can cut both ways and you’re doing the industry a service by calling it out and systematically documenting it.

        The bigger issue is the non-permissioned or stealth data mining being used to assemble the emotional triggers and emotional campaigns. That’s the real issue in the long term. Consumers and/or business customers are not mice in a digital marketing skinner box pushing a feeder bar called ‘transaction’. If we get to that place as an industry where that model goes mainstream in the digital economy, it will backfire. Think young users abandoning Facebook as an example.

        Read the WhatsApp founder’s early piece on why they (on principle) banned advertising from their app. It goes to the core value proposition of their offering. How they reconcile their startup principles with the Facebook acquisition is anybody’s guess—-But 19 billion bucks would be a ‘rational’ (i.e. non-emotional) reason to reconsider.

        • Dan Messina

          While you have very valid points, and I agree there are many issues inherent with data mining, I don’t see how emotional triggers are any worse than rational ones.

          Regardless of whether you’re influenced by an “emotional” trigger, or a “logical” or “rational” trigger, or whatever you want to call it, at some point a trigger caused you to make the purchase.

          You can certainly make the argument that if the trigger was created solely on your personal data there is a violation of privacy. But, as you say, the use of “emotion” cuts both ways, and I don’t think the trigger being ’emotional’ or ‘rational’ really matters. You just seem to prefer being influenced by one.

          I think it comes down to the illusion of free will. While you can construct a story after making a purchase of how you overcome emotions and are able to assess products like an “Econ” (or Homo economicus), in reality your consciousness did not have a choice, only the illusion of choice. And, on top of that, most people are not rational Econs but Humans.

          There is certainly an argument to be made that we are, in fact, in a figurative Skinner box, but since there is no outside manipulator (Skinner), it is a slightly different situation. As far as behavior being dependent upon our genes and our environment, that’s the same as the Skinner Box.

          “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne.” – Jeremy Bentham

  • I’m surprised that emotion gave a bigger turnout than emotion and logic combined.

    But very interesting and well written article. Thanks for that 🙂

  • Courtney, you are wise beyond your years! Excellent piece.

  • I have been waiting for, and eagerly looking for articles on ‘The Science of Emorion in Marketing’…

    Thank you Courtney for your exceptionally great informational article post!

    • Courtney Seiter

      You’re very welcome!

  • Thank you Courtney for this informative article. I’m an Internet marketer, and heard a bit about this. Here you explain it so well and I thank you. I like to use a happy emotional words to create a comfort zone and a happy response. I try to keep away from the rational brain because its more of a two step process.

    Again, many thanks!

    • Courtney Seiter

      It’s interesting how much more effective emotion is that reason. Thanks for reading!

  • G-Force Marketing

    @courtneyseiter:disqus so refreshing to read a thoughtful, well written, and well substantiated blog – very nicely done! I agree with how emotion sales, but for long term success the rationale arguments must support the emotion created!

    • Courtney Seiter

      Excellent point!

  • I am surprised you do not include hope or relief (from pain, threat, restriction, tension) –

    It is often confused with joy, or relaxation, but relief is closely associated with hope and neither seem to have places on your diagrams.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Interesting point. I haven’t come across many studies on those particular emotions, but I will keep an eye out. Could be very interesting!

  • Just Great! If you don’t care, I am doing the translation to portuguese to insert in my blog. So good to have all these informations get together in a way everybody can understand psychology, marketing, neuroscience and how we humans biengs feel the environment.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Thanks, Rico! You are free to translate. 🙂

  • Gerald Khoury

    Such a well researched, well written and informative article Courtney. You’ve restored my faith in social media 🙂

    • Courtney Seiter

      Wow, thanks Gerald. Researching is half the fun of writing for me!

  • This is a well-laid out article. The data definitely supports what you’re saying, so thank you for sharing that with us! Emotions are a great way to appeal to consumers, and as content marketers, the Prose Media team values that approach!

    • Courtney Seiter

      You’re welcome; thanks for reading!

  • I voted up with alot of others complimentary comments and there are quite a few. And after a while I figured I would throw in another. Great read. Very well stated! Will be a great reread too. And am on to the links (not golf, lynx) Thanks so much.

  • B2B marketers (of which I am one) need to appeal more to customer and buyer emotions. Rational and clinical marketing is forgettable. Emotional appeal is memorable. Simon Sinek’s approach to discovering the “why” is a perfect way to approach emotional appeal. Really nice blog Courtney!

    • Peter Jones

      In the slow burn world of B2B, doesn’t trust become proportionately a lot more important? Is the urge to telescope a longer conversation into a zappy snappy, “yes I’ll buy this” decision, at the risk of losing the whole opportunity?

      • Great discussion here; I think a combination of rational and emotional marketing could work really well particularly for longer relationship and more in-depth purchasing decisions.

  • Courtney – Thanks for providing this great information. Very insightful.

  • LOL. Very Amazing! Very Informative post, Court!. Thank you so much for sharing this kind of article.

  • Sijan Bhandari

    Really a great piece of writing. Thank you for sharing.

  • SingpielScot

    Great post with lots of data and research behind it. Very helpful.

  • Isaac Kao

    Great Research!! I would like to translate this work into Chinese and share with my colleague, could I? Thank a lot.

    • Hey there Isaac, so sorry for the delay here! That would be fine by me!

  • kenci59

    Thank you – as a marketer trying to convince people on the the importance of consumer neuroscience as key to marketing decision, this is a wonderfully comprehensive article

  • Investor Testing

    Great article. I work in the area of behavioral economics at http://investortesting.com. I will be adding this post to our Investor Psychology area. Thank you.

  • Great article Courtney. I am always amazed at the human brain and how its function with social media is primarily affected by response and reaction. All we have to do is find the right trigger sequences to make that happen.

    • I agree, Wade; there’s so much to know and explore about the brain!

  • Amir Boroujerdi

    Great article! Very informative and interesting.

  • Sean Emerson Santos

    This is a must read. It helped me learn more about sadness. Thank you very much.

  • VideoFlute Dwight Harrison

    For the businesses focused on the up side of life, there are some ideas for marketing here to build up more business contacts and greater positive business results here : https://youtu.be/mO0ORNtM36U

  • Dwight Harrison

    Connect with a range of positive business people that make life more pleasant : http://businesspleasureexposed.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/feel-free-to-thank-united-kingdom.html & Enjoy some music: https://payhip.com/b/ZIFS

  • Yuri Adlan

    It’s time I tried this.A Progress. Guarantee !!!