Sharing information has never been easier. Tap a button or click a mouse and you can tell hundreds of your closest friends and family, or thousands of strangers, pretty much anything.
But with a seemingly infinite amount of information and number of ways to share it at our disposal comes difficult choices regarding what to share and when.
The process of choosing what to share isn't as straightforward as it might seem. A new study suggests that our brains rapidly consider the personal and social complexities of information-sharing so that you can make that judgment call within a matter of seconds.
The findings provide new insight into why people feel compelled to share certain types of content online — and could help publishers, including media companies (such as this one, ahem), develop strategies for maximizing viral potential.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan people's brains while they looked at dozens of New York Times headlines and abstracts. The researchers observed the neural activity in certain regions of the brain and also asked the participants whether they would share each story.
Articles that triggered stronger activity in areas of the brain associated with value and reward were shared more frequently by Times readers, the study found. People's brains appeared to be gauging the headlines and abstracts of each article to determine how sharing them might create positive personal and social outcomes for them.
"When people decide whether to share or not, they make a calculation about the value of sharing."
In other words, when a story more effectively tapped into people's desire for others to see them favorably, and presented an opportunity to relate to others positively, they were more likely to share it — and possibly make it go viral.
"When people decide whether to share or not, they make a calculation about the value of sharing, and that value calculation seems to be common enough across people that we can predict what articles get shared around the world based on brain activity in 40 people in Philadelphia," Emily Falk, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said via email.
The researchers first conducted the study on a group of 41 college students and then replicated the findings in a second group of 39 students.
Scientists are often skeptical of fMRI research because it can be easy to incorrectly interpret the association between brain activity and psychological processes.
Falk, however, said the technique can help researchers better understand human behavior. She and her research team also combined fMRI results with participants' self-reported sharing intentions to strengthen their statistical model and improve the accuracy of their predictions.
Falk and her five co-authors think the results represent something they call "value-based virality," a hypothesis that explains the process of information-sharing in a connected world. Basically, the brain combines two types of inputs — self-related outcomes and the social impact of sharing — to compute the value of sharing a piece of information widely.
People may have different individual goals for sharing, like making someone laugh, appearing well-informed or improving their social relationships by engaging others. Regardless of their specific aims, the brain is able to quickly assess the overarching value of sharing particular content.
For this study, the researchers selected 80 Times articles about health and fitness, a topic that made it easier for them to control for article characteristics like novelty or contentiousness. The stories covered subjects such as healthy school meals and tips on how to run better. Participants reviewed only the headlines and abstracts, in a similar way to how someone might consider content on social media networks.
"Humans are hard-wired to want to be part of positive social relationships and have a positive image of ourselves."
The researchers used internal sharing data from the Times to see how frequently readers posted each story to a social media platform. Other means of distribution, like links posted directly to Facebook and Twitter instead of through the Times' sharing tools, could not be counted. The 80 stories were shared a total of 117,611 times.
Christin Scholz, the study's lead author and a doctoral student in Falk's lab at the University of Pennsylvania, said that while both brain activity and self-reports predicted virality, brain activity uniquely helped to explain variances in how frequently articles were shared.
People, for example, might report they don't want to share an article whereas their brain activity suggests otherwise. Scholz said that may happen because people don't want to admit their interest in sharing something or don't realize it because the calculation is happening unconsciously in the brain.
The study does have some caveats, however. For example, the articles used, from a period between July 2012 and February 2013, may predate more recent headline-writing trends that use emotional and declarative phrasing to appeal to readers.
The researchers also couldn't see the total page views each story received compared to its shares, which could have given them a clearer picture of whether or not an article truly went viral. Scholz said she and her co-authors weren't looking for virality in terms of sheer volume but rather differences in sharing patterns between articles.
"We’re really targeting very basic processes and motivations," Scholz said.
"Humans are hard-wired to want to be part of positive social relationships and have a positive image of ourselves. Those are basic human traits that should be active across articles."
Scholz and her co-authors are exploring how these findings could lead to strategies that improve an article's viral chances. While they haven't tested specific interventions yet, Scholz thinks subtle suggestions to the reader might be effective, like hinting that sharing might make you look smart or make someone you know laugh. Using more words that linguists consider "social" in an article may also prompt readers to think about sharing it.
So the next time you click to share a story and it feels like second nature to you, just remember your brain may have calculated that you'd gain from sharing it.