Emotionally volatile content is more engaging

Frequent, big, emotional ups and down in content make it more engaging. For example, a 31.75% increase in volatility in movies is associated with a 1-point higher rating on IMDb.

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This study from Wharton (University of Pennsylvania) analyzed 32,085 online articles, 4,118 movies, and ran experiments to explore why some content is more engaging than others.

The researchers adapted a financial equation typically used to measure trading volatility to measure content’s emotional volatility (how frequently and by how much it goes from positive to negative).

Jonah Berger is one of the authors of this research. His book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” is a great way to learn about research-based techniques to generate more word-of-mouth (research up to 2013, when it was published). Here’s his Talk at Google about the book (note: I get no commission, this is pure word-of-mouth 😉).

Fun fact: currently, Jonah is Ariyh’s 2nd most covered marketing professor (3 tips), right after Norbert Schwarz (4 tips). They sure know how to produce practically useful research!

Here are Jonah’s two other Ariyh tips:

Use frequent and large emotional swings in your content to make it more engaging

Impacted metrics: Engagement | Ad performance
Channels: Content strategy | Video ads | Social media
For: Mostly B2C

Tip type: New research (February 2021)
Previous tip: Place future-related items on the right (All tips here)


Make your content alternate often and radically between negative and positive emotions. People will find it more engaging and like it more.

Use this for your blog posts, video ads, podcasts, presentations, and other situations where you are communicating a narrative.


  • Highly ‘volatile’ content (e.g. articles, videos) switches radically and frequently between positive and negative emotions (think of a volatile stock market):

    • Positive, very negative, very positive, extremely negative is highly volatile

    • Positive, positive, mildly negative, negative is not very volatile

    • Highly positive elements include: laughter, happiness, and love

    • Highly negative words include: terrorist, suicide, and murder

  • When content is more volatile, it’s more engaging and people like it more:

    • For movies, a 31.75% increase in volatility is linked to a 1-point increase in IMDb ratings (the effect is strongest for genres like thrillers and mysteries and weakest for documentaries and romance movies) and more ticket sales

    • For online content, a one-unit increase in volatility was associated with a 4.23% higher chance the reader would continue to the next paragraph

    • Lab experiments confirmed a cause-effect relationship

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Why it works

  • Like the emotional ups and downs of a roller coaster, we find volatile content more stimulating. We get bored of something that’s always the same (e.g. eating the same food).

  • This increased stimulation makes things more exciting through positive stress and higher dopamine levels. In turn, that makes us like things more.


  • In movies, the study only analyzed the text of subtitles. If we take into account visual aspects (e.g. facial expressions, action scenes), the effect could be even stronger in the video context.

  • Too much volatility may become overwhelming at some point. It’s unclear when that is.

  • Content success is clearly driven by other, probably more important factors (e.g. quality, relevance to the viewer/reader) - much of which is the art of developing an engaging narrative. However, this shows that there is some underlying science as well.

Companies using this

  • Experienced video creators (e.g. ads, movies) and writers seem to be aware that it’s important to ‘switch things up’ often to avoid boring the audience.

  • Keeping in mind the strength of this effect, there seems to be a largely untapped opportunity to use it more, especially for online content - where people can quit at any time. More frequent and stronger ups and downs may keep people reading to the next paragraph or watching the next minute of a YouTube video.

Steps to implement

  • Keep this in mind next time you are producing or reviewing content (e.g. a new ad, your podcast, your next Medium article).

  • While frequent ups and downs are beneficial, be careful to not sacrifice a larger, overarching narrative, so you have a satisfying start and conclusion.

Study type

Lab experiments and market observation (text analysis of 4,118 movies’ subtitles and 32,085 pieces of online content). United States


Berger, J., Kim, Y. D., & Meyer, R. (February 2021). What Makes Content Engaging? How Emotional Dynamics Shape Success. Journal of Consumer Research.

[Link to paper]


Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. United States

Remember: Because of the groundbreaking nature of this paper, it could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.

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