Sharing Our Deepest Desires: Why Content Really Goes Viral

What makes an article blow up online? Psychology. Here's how emotions and desires shape what we click and what we share.

image of neon sign reading need and desire, representing human motivation

Tearjerkers. Listicles. Celebrities behaving badly. 

Trying to understand why some pieces of content go viral and others don’t is often an infuriating task. Before long, you’ll find yourself screaming into the void, “Why did so many people share this garbage when great content languishes in obscurity? It doesn’t make any sense!” 

Except, it does make sense. People go to the effort of sharing content for a reason. And while it’s not an exact science by any means, considering the motivations behind those shares can increase your business’s chances of creating content that really takes off. 

Yes, numbers in titles often increase readership, and yes, influencers and clickbait can make all the difference. But maybe there’s something deeper going on. 

All human motivation is dictated by a hierarchy of needs—whether we’re fighting for survival or sharing funny memes

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow published “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. In it, he laid out the framework for what he called the “hierarchy of needs.” Usually represented as a pyramid, this hierarchy shows the most fundamental human needs that need to be met—including physiological needs like water, food, and sleep, and safety needs like our health and well-being—before our motivations shift to fulfilling our highest desires (like the desire for intimacy, belonging, and self-esteem).

At the top of Maslow’s pyramid is self-actualization—or as Lizzo might put it, taking a DNA test and finding out you’re 100% that b*tch. We all want to be our best selves and live our best lives, but we can’t focus on achieving this goal until we take care of our more basic needs. 

Our motivations are always in flux, of course, and one person can be driven by multiple high and low needs at any given moment. But when we feel comfortable and safe, we’re always going to chase our more aspirational desires. 

So what does all this have to do with viral articles? Turns out, just about everything. 

Emotional and aspirational motivations drive most of our shares

Chances are, when you’re scrolling through Buzzfeed or Twitter, your most fundamental physiological needs are being met. You’re fed, watered, and have had enough sleep (mostly), or you probably wouldn’t be looking at content at all. 

The next motivational rung on Maslow’s pyramid is safety. While this certainly explains why some content is shared en masse—like fear-inducing headlines about terrorism, or worrisome content about the economy—most of us feel safe enough when we’re staring at our devices. 

The rung above safety is love and belonging, and this is a biggie. From stories about political parties we detest to hot gossip about musicians we follow, many of us share content simply to reinforce who we are and which groups we want to associate with. It’s about convincing others we belong, but also convincing ourselves. 

Even seemingly altruistic shares can have selfish underlying motivations. I might send a friend planning a holiday a post about cheap flights because she’ll find it helpful, but also because it will make me seem helpful. That motivation might not be at the top of my conscious mind when I’m doing it, but the powerful desire to be loved and to fit in still drives my cursor toward the share button. 

Above love and belonging is esteem, and this is where our ego takes the wheel. Be honest—we’ve all shared at least one post because it made us feel good about ourselves. Whether it’s joining in with the general outrage sparked by a controversial political decision (that you’ve only just heard about) or sharing a reassuring article about why bald men are sexier (an article that actually did go viral in 2016), we crave that self-assurance that, yes, we are good people and we look great. 

And what about self-actualization, the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy (at least until he added self-transcendence, but we’ll get to that later)? The desire to reach self-actualization shines through when we share content that we perceive as helping us reach our fullest potential—and showing others that we’ve made it. For someone who longs to be an amazing parent, this could involve plastering their Facebook wall with stories about child psychology and parenting tips. For a business owner, it could be LinkedIn content about the secret to success. 

Most people are self-aware about the motivations underpinning their sharing habits

You can learn a lot about a person from the content they share—about who they want to be, and who they think they are. But this shouldn’t be all that surprising, especially if you’ve ever shared content yourself. 

In an intensive study of 2,500 people, The New York Times discovered that, on the whole, most people are aware of their sharing habits. The five main reasons people said they shared stories online were: 

  • To bring valuable and entertaining content to one another
  • To define themselves to others, giving people a better sense of who they are 
  • To grow and nourish relationships and stay connected with others 
  • For self-fulfillment, to feel more involved in the world
  • To get the word out about causes they care about

People generally know what motivates them, and they recognize that desires like belonging and self-actualization are behind most of their shares. Turns out all our sharing habits are a little bit selfish, and that’s okay. It’s only human. 

Appealing to readers’ intrinsic motivations may be your best shot at going viral—but awe will always come out on top

For businesses, reflecting on your own desires is a great place to start when it comes to crafting share-worthy content. Ask yourself, “What would make me share this? What deep desire would I be fulfilling by sending it to a friend or posting it to Twitter?”

Emotion plays a large role. Your content has to make your reader feel something to get a reaction out of them. And for them to share it, it has to be something they want others to feel, too—or something they want others to know they feel. 

Articles that go viral run the gamut of emotions from sheer joy to unfiltered outrage, but do you know what one of the most powerful human emotions is? Awe. Why? Because it’s an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.” And if you’ve been reading closely, you’ll remember that I mentioned self-transcendence as one of the highest human needs Maslow identified. 

The above quote about self-transcendence comes from research by the University of Pennsylvania. In a study looking at the most-emailed New York Times articles, researchers discovered that, surprisingly, sex and fear weren’t nearly as juicy topics as most writers at the time assumed. Instead, articles with positive emotional themes were the most share-worthy—especially those that inspired awe. 

The researchers speculated that sharing these articles was a way for readers to create an “emotional communion” with people—a goal somewhat loftier than just trying to belong to a group or impress their friends. 

Content that transcends clickbait

When Maslow added self-transcendence to the very top of his hierarchy of needs in 1969, he viewed it as a need beyond all selfless desires. He saw it as an attempt to “become relatively egoless”—to embrace one’s own sense of selfhood while simultaneously stepping outside of it, no longer consumed by the selfish needs of the ego or the performance of identity. 

If it sounds like a spiritual experience, it is. Most of us will never get there, and Maslow said that’s fine; you can still lead a healthy, fulfilled life without seeking experiences of “Being-cognition.” But in those moments when we find content that gives us a reverential moment of reflection, which we share simply because we want others to experience it, too—those are the moments when we know ourselves and the world best of all. All thanks to a few words on a page. 

At MarketSmiths, our deepest desire is to create content that stops people in their tracks and stirs their highest desires. We’re on a mission to go above and beyond—and we’d love to leave you awestruck. 

Take your content to the next level. Contact us today.

Samantha McLaren

Samantha McLaren

Having worked as a ghost tour guide for five years, Samantha knows how to get a reaction using only words. Hailing from bonny Scotland, she spent years gathering weird, eclectic experience (from laboratory assistant to radio DJ to Sunday school teacher) before finding her true calling–writing. She came to New York to see what MarketSmiths could teach her, and never left. Copywriter by day, amateur horror writer by night, she has a passion for words and is drawn to the strange and unusual.

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