This post originally appeared on the Buffer blog and has been republished with permission.
Every day it seems like we feel hundreds of different emotions â each nuanced and specific to the physical andÂ social situationsÂ we find ourselves in.
According to science, itâs not that complicated by a long shot. A new study says weâre really only capable ofÂ four âbasicâ emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted.
But much like theÂ âmother saucesâ of cookingÂ allow you to make pretty much any kind of food under the sun, these four âmother emotionsâ meld together in myriad ways in our brains to create our layered emotional stews.
Robert Plutchikâs famousÂ âwheel of emotionsâÂ shows just some of the well known emotional layers.
In this post weâll take a close look at each of the four emotions, how they form in the brain and the way they canÂ motivate usÂ to surprising actions.
Happiness makes us want to share
PsychoanalystÂ Donald WinnicottÂ discovered that our first emotional action in life is to respond to our motherâs smile with a smile of our own. Obviously, joy andÂ happinessÂ are hard-wired into all of us.
TheÂ left pre-frontal cortexÂ of the brain is where happiness traits like optimism and resilience live. A study done at theÂ Laboratory for Affective NeuroscienceÂ watched Buddhist Monks and found that theÂ left prefrontal lobe of their brains lit upÂ as they entered a blissfulÂ state of meditation.
No wonder, then, that happiness is theÂ main driver for social media sharing. Emotions layered with and related toÂ happinessÂ make up the majority of this list of the top drivers of viral content asÂ studied by Fractl.
Hereâs what Fractlâs study of top emotional drivers looks likeÂ overlaid on the emotion wheel:
Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvaniaâs Wharton School and author ofÂ Contagious: Why Things Catch On, studied nearly 7,000 articles inÂ The New York TimesÂ to determine what was special about those on the most-emailed list.Â He found that an article wasÂ more likely to become viral the more positive it was.
Googleâs Abigail PosnerÂ describes this urge as an âenergy exchange:â
âWhen 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 weâre alive, happy and full of energy (even if we may notÂ always feel that way). And when we âlikeâ or comment on a picture or video sent to us, weâre sending a gift of sorts back to the sender. Weâre affirming them. But, most profoundly, this âgiftâ of sharing contributes to an energy exchange that amplifies our own pleasure â and is something weâre hardwired to do.â
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. AÂ study by Paul ZakÂ 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 theÂ âstress hormoneâ; 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 couldnât see.
Zak posits that oxytocinâs ability to help us create understanding and empathy may also make us more generous and trusting. In aÂ different study, participants under the influence of oxytocin gave more money to charity than those not exposed to the chemical.
âOur results show why puppies and babies are in toilet paper commercials,âÂ Zak said. âThis 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.â
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 theÂ amygdalaÂ (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 studyÂ published in theÂ Journal of Consumer Research demonstrated thatÂ consumers who experienced fearÂ 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 weâre scared, we need to share the experience with others â and if no one else is around, even a non-human brand will do. Fear can stimulate people to report greater brand attachment.
âPeople cope with fear by bonding with other people. When watching a scary movie they look at each other and say âOh my god!â and their connection is enhanced,âÂ says study author Lea Dunn. âBut, in the absence of friends, our study shows consumers will create heightened emotional attachment with a brand that happens to be on hand.â
Anger/disgust make us more stubborn
TheÂ hypothalamusÂ 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, asÂ 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 didnât feel one way or another about nanotechnology. The civil group had no change of opinion.
Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with aÂ much more polarized understandingÂ 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 theyâd previously thought.
So negativity has a real and lasting effect â and itâs evident in how content gets shared, too. In the previously mentioned New York TimesÂ viral contentÂ study, some negative emotions are positively associated with virality âÂ 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 â maybe even more than previously thought â to marketing.
In an analysis of theÂ IPA dataBANK, which contains 1,400 case studies of successful advertising campaigns, campaigns with purely emotional content performedÂ about twice as wellÂ (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 â that people feel first, and think second. The emotional brain processes sensory information inÂ one fifth of the time our cognitive brainÂ 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, theyâre so primal that weâll always be wired to pay attention to them â 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.
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 â the feeling of overcoming a primal fear â was the driver that moved their customers.
Thatâs why Googleâs Abigail Posner says we canât underestimateÂ the importance of understanding the science of emotion in marketing:
âUnderstand the emotional appeal and key drivers behind the discovery, viewing, sharing and creation of online video, photography and visual contentâ¦.In the language of the visual web, when we share a video or an image, weâre not just sharing the object, but weâre sharing in the emotional response it creates.â