Attentional capture helps explain why moral and emotional content go viral

William J. Brady, Ana P. Gantman, Jay J. Van Bavel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Our social media newsfeeds are filled with a variety of content all battling for our limited attention. Across 3 studies, we investigated whether moral and emotional content captures our attention more than other content and if this may help explain why this content is more likely to go viral online. Using a combination of controlled lab experiments and nearly 50,000 political tweets, we found that moral and emotional content are prioritized in early visual attention more than neutral content, and that such attentional capture is associated with increased retweets during political conversations online. Furthermore, we found that the differences in attentional capture among moral and emotional stimuli could not be fully explained by differences in arousal. These studies suggest that attentional capture is 1 basic psychological process that helps explain the increased diffusion of moral and emotional content during political discourse on social media, and shed light on ways in which political leaders, disinformation profiteers, marketers, and activist organizations can spread moralized content by capitalizing on natural tendencies of our perceptual systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)746-756
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2020


  • Attention
  • Emotion
  • Morality
  • Social media
  • Social networks
  • Arousal/physiology
  • Social Media
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Emotions
  • Morals
  • Young Adult
  • Adolescent
  • Female
  • Attention/physiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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