The Psychology Behind Viral Trends and Why We Follow Them

The Psychology Behind Viral Trends and Why We Follow Them

the psychology of trends

The world may be engulfed in a pandemic, climate crisis looming large, or political strife between countries escalating at an alarming rate, yet, one thing remains unchanged and unfazed, the internet and its trends.

Whether it be the classic prank of rickrolling or the ice bucket challenge, the new dance challenges that emerge every week, lip sync videos to viral songs, making edits of one’s favourite TV series characters, or making ‘girl math’ tweets, there are very few who can claim that they haven’t participated in internet trends.

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It might seem a mystery as to why some songs and dances become a trend on TikTok and Instagram, videos and posts get over a million views on Facebook and Whatsapp, and photos and edits become a meme on Twitter. But, there’s rhyme and reason to this virality. Psychologists have conducted extensive research on Social Networking Sites, the Internet, and what makes us participate in viral trends. Let’s look into the mechanisms of how content becomes viral, and why we follow trends!

1. Positive Response in the Brain

The simplest and foremost reason why people share viral content is because it can be an emotional release. Posting videos and content on social media or sending links to friends can act as a channel to process their emotions and feelings. In psychologist Jonah Berger’s words – “Arousal is an aversive state, so people want to get out of it by sharing.” As long as following trends is concerned, it triggers a positive response in the brain. Social media is entertaining, and people feel good about being able to make other people laugh. People also find it to be a great avenue for self-expression. Additionally, replicating a social media trend can also have an element of challenge, which can lead to fulfilment.

2. Social belonging

It is a widely known fact that humans are social animals; according to research, it is inherent to crave togetherness and belonging. Acceptance by our peers is a core determining factor of our well-being, and we strive to act in ways that improve the chances of this social acceptance. In modern times, pop culture has replaced our everyday interactions. Social Lives have come to be centred on entertainment rather than relationships. In a world revolving around entertainment, our way of communicating with one another is through sharing content and participating in trends on social media.

Participating in social media trends leads to social interaction and appreciation from others. Humans seek to forward and produce content that’s valuable and entertaining to others, which leads to a feeling of being more involved in what the world is doing and facilitates social belonging. Another closely related factor is FOMO or fear of missing out. Being unable to relate to a conversation about the latest Marvel movie or not knowing what went down in the latest Netflix show harms a person’s ability to interact with others, which is why FOMO is a big motivating factor to follow what’s trendy.

3. Social Identity and Status

Viewed from a lens of social psychology, popular trends are a manifestation of the in-group and out-group in their social identity theory. This theory, given by social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner, examines how part of an individual’s self-concept is derived from their membership in social groups. Being in the in-group is desired, as a person sees themself as part of the “us,” while the out-group is the “other”.

In pop culture, the in-group is composed of the individuals who follow trends and the out-group is people who do not. Applying this to pop culture, explains why people follow trends set by celebrities. Since celebrities are at the centre of the in-group and are liked widely, they are seen as superior. Naturally, people desire to be more like them and imitate their clothing and other activities.

4. Information Sharing and Status

People also participate in trends and share content which they feel imparts valuable information. People use social media trends to get the word out on causes they care about. But there is a negative facet to this as well. Ego can also fuel the sharing of content. In a world where a person’s digital footprint is the first impression they make on people, they use content to fabricate their image online. People will post carefully selected videos or links, keeping in mind what it will do for their status. Researchers have found that people very often share articles on Twitter that they haven’t read themselves, merely to showcase they are informed.

5. Mental Shortcut

People are also inclined to follow trends because they act like mental shortcuts. Because social media trends and viral content are usually of a very short duration and one comes across it repeatedly, it becomes imprinted onto their brains. Following what others around them are doing saves the time and effort of the thought process required in decision-making.

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This is often seen in “slacktivism” trends, in which people show their support for causes on social networking sites only because it is perceived trendy to do so, without actually carrying out the research on the topic or implementing any changes in their real lives to help the cause. An example of this could be people in great numbers posting black squares on Instagram to support the #BlackLivesMatter campaign without remedying their racist behaviours or calling out racism they might encounter.

6. Perceived Skill

Research has revealed that a reason for people participating in trends is that it provides them with a sense of accomplishment. Social media trends, especially those that involve mastering a new recipe (Dalgona coffee during COVID-19 quarantine) or learning a new skill (the increasing popularity of crochet, or new dance routines), make people feel like they are being productive and acquiring new skills.

7. Novelty

The human brain is wired to seek novelty, and we are bound to get tired of seeing the same old ideas over and over again. Research has established that seeing something new triggers reward pathways in our brains. This is why new content on social media feeds works so well in catching our attention. Thus, it is easy to understand the motivation behind doing trends new in our ways.


Social media is a powerful tool, with the ability to dynamically change someone’s future or to turn election results of a country. With endless content and infinite scrolling algorithms, it can keep you engaged forever. Although we have seen above how it can work positively by providing social acceptance and support, acting as an outlet for creativity, and acquiring new skills, spending too much time on social media must be viewed with apprehension. We mustn’t lose sight of our relationships in real life and devote adequate time to those as well. Therefore, grasping the motivation behind our attraction to social media trends and viral content can help us seek other ways to gratify those needs.

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