Psychology of Social Media Part 2: The 4 Basic Emotions

Social media is much more than mindless distraction. It is a world within a world indicative of our innate needs to exchange ideas, express feelings and make deep connections. The social media movement reconnects us to an essential part of ourselves and to the elemental roots of what really makes us tick. (Oh, and just in case you missed it, don’t forget to check out the Psychology of Social Media, part 1!)

The word “emotion” comes from the Latin emovere, which literally means “to move” (random history facts).  Emotions move us to do unexpected things, and in social media you can use emotions to move customers right to your door. Broken down in their simplest forms, Dr. Paul Ekman reveals that there are only 4 basic human emotions from which all other emotions are born. Let’s take a look at these 4 basic emotions, how they drive us to surprising actions and most importantly, how you can use them to your business’s advantage.


The 4 Basic Human Emotions


The 4 Basic Emotions: Joy moves people.

Basic Emotion 1: Happiness 

Housed within the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain, happiness isn’t something we like to keep to ourselves. Based upon a prolific study by Donald Winnicott, science proved that joy increases when shared with others. This tells us that happiness and joy are drivers of action. Touch on those happy vibes in your social media, and your business will thank you! The University of Pennsylvania found that articles evoking positive and happy emotional tones are more likely to go viral than those that don’t.


The 4 Basic Emotions: Empathy leads to trust.

Basic Emotion 2: Sadness/Empathy

As we experience feelings of empathy, our brains produce the hormone oxytocin. This hormone is the promoter of connection and empathetic drive that plays a huge part in the development of trust. From a marketing standpoint, this is why advertisers choose babies and puppies for things like phone commercials. Though neither babies nor puppies directly relate to cell phones, the use of them stimulates an area in our brain that promotes empathy and trust. Select imagery that will prompt empathy-driving elements to aid in building trust in both your product and your brand. 


Basic Emotion 3: Fear/SurpriseThe 4 Basic Emotions: Fear makes us look for something to cling to.

A study in the Journal of Consumer Research illustrated that individuals who felt fear and surprise during a film-based research experiment felt a greater association with a present brand than individuals who felt emotions of happiness and sadness ( The conclusion of the study found that when we feel fear or surprise, we look for something to cling to. Broken down, the findings make perfect sense. People’s go-to response when they’re surprised or fearful is to bond with others around them. This is why we look around the room and exclaim “Oh my goodness!” or “Wow!” or “Did you see that?” when astonishing or frightening things happen. Most importantly, the study concluded that if another person isn’t evoking surprise in us, but we are instead evoked through a product or brand, consumers transfer the emotional need for shared attachment onto the brand itself, thus resulting in brand trust and loyalty.


Basic Emotion 4: Anger/DisgustThe 4 Basic Emotions: Anger makes us stick to our guns.

Even though positive emotions have a greater effect on us than negative ones, negative emotions are not free from making a lasting impression. The cool thing about anger and disgust is their evolution into a form of stubbornness. Anger and disgust forces consumers to dig into their stance about whatever issue is on the table. Tap into this emotion by researching the market for your particular business. It won’t take long to find out what is possibly irking consumers about your field. For example, if you own a roofing company, do some online research, or just ask others around you what bothers people most about roof installation. You might find that people think the process is too noisy or too lengthy or too costly. Make your business stand out by speaking to one of these specific frustrations. This taps into the stubborn elements connected with the frustration, yet shows why your brand is a better choice than others.


By now, most of us know the basic fundamentals of social media. Web Marketing Today suggests that social media success comes from engagement even more than exposure. Understanding the 4 basic human emotions and how they affect our engagement can transform how you use social media for business. The effectiveness of social media engagement begins with knowing and developing the story behind the content. (See our post 6 Smart Tips for Brand Storytelling in Social Media.)

French novelist Marcel Proust sums it up best. He reminds us that “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Let us help you look at your social media with new eyes and discover what makes your story worth telling.

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