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6 Types of Images That Elicit an Emotional Response

As with all forms of art, our preference for images tends to be highly subjective, with personal tastes differing from one person to the next. Having said that, science would suggest that there are certain categories of images that are more likely to elicit strong emotional responses than others.To explore the point, we to put together a collection based entirely around these psychological theories, with each category aimed at evoking positive emotional responses in the viewer. In addition to brightening your day, we hope that these theories – and corresponding images – provide inspiration for approaching your next design project or campaign.


1. Portraits

From the moment we’re born, we’re hard-wired to focus our attention on human faces. In a classic study by Robert Franz, newborn babies spent twice as long looking at an image of a human face as they did at an image of a bulls-eye. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense; babies will be at an advantage if they can both recognize and bond with the face that provides them with all their basic needs.
This deeply rooted tendency continues throughout childhood and into our adult lives, facilitating our ability to communicate with others and build important social relationships. In turn, it also explains the compelling nature of photographic portraits and the strong draw we often feel toward them.

2. Babies

(Image by balenopix)
Babies evoke some of our strongest emotional responses, instantly engaging and then maintaining our attention. These instinctual responses are inclined to be universal across cultures, and are thought to be triggered by “baby schema” – a specific set of characteristics that include: large, wide eyes; high foreheads; small noses; round, chubby cheeks; and soft, small bodies. When we are presented with these cute characteristics, the nucleus accumbens is activated, and a huge surge of the pleasure hormone dopamine is released — leaving us feeling happier and completely enthralled by these tiny creatures. (We explain this phenomenon in greater detail here.)


3. Animals

(Image by Eric Gevaert)
As most of us can attest, the “cute appeal” certainly doesn’t end with human babies. Evolutionary psychologists propose some possible explanations for this. One theory argues that our response might be an evolutionary glitch; that our hard-wired response to babies is so powerful that it transfers over to other baby mammals that share similar “baby schema” characteristics. The second idea is that our fixation with baby animals allows us to better bond with them. In the past, forming such bonds, or feeling fondness toward animals, may have been evolutionarily advantageous and helped us to survive. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that our emotional response to animals is a strong one, and that our fixation isn’t going to end any time soon.

4. Inspiration

(Image by Greg Epperson)
Images that evoke feelings of inspiration can have a powerful psychological impact. As something that most of us seek on a daily basis, inspiration plays an important role in our lives. It can help us to envision overcoming our current limitations, and in doing so, motivate us to achieve our goals, increase our productivity, and improve our well-being. When this inspiration comes from others, it brings the sentiment, “If they can do it, I can do it” – sometimes the greatest motivation of all.

5. Nostalgia

The power of an image to evoke past memories can be surprisingly moving. We can be transported right back to a particular time or place and remember everything that we felt at the time. And while triggers for nostalgia are highly individual, research shows that we tend to feel nostalgic for past events that 1) were personally meaningful, and that 2) involved significant people in our lives, like family, partners, and friends.
If we’re reminiscing on happy memories, experiencing nostalgia will have lots of psychological benefits. For example, if we’re feeling lonely or facing difficult challenges, nostalgia can act as a powerful reminder of happier times, re-instilling the notion that we’re part of a larger scheme and helping to place our problems in perspective.

6. Expressions of Happiness

(Image by R.M. Nunes)
Body language is one of the most talked-about topics in social psychology, and with good reason. The ability to convey emotions and attitudes through our stance and expressions can have a powerful effect on ourselves and the people around us.
(Image by Tatyana Vyc)
Most impressive, perhaps, is our natural tendency to mimic the emotional gestures of the people we’re interacting with, which research has shown can actually lead to feeling the emotions of the other person. Social psychologists call this emotional contagion.
(Image by Spotmatik Ltd)
The effect is so strong, that it can even occur from looking at images, meaning that browsing through images of happy faces may just have the power to lift your mood, or even put a smile on your face.
(Image by Tuzemka)
Image by Tom Wang

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  • Shutterstock
  • Photography
  • Stock photo

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