What makes us share posts on social media?

The average internet user spends nearly three hours a day using social media. It’s clear that social media is becoming increasingly crucial to sharing important information with the public — like how to stay safe from COVID-19, for example — and researchers want to know what makes a piece of media compelling enough for people to share it online.

A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Generalled by University of Pennsylvania researchers Danielle Cosme and Emily Falk analyzed the behavior of more than 3,000 individuals to explore the psychology behind sharing information online. It turns out that the answer is quite straightforward: People share information that they feel is meaningful to themselves or to the people they know. Cosme and her team test what contributes to “value-based virality” — essentially that information on the internet can go viral because people find it inherently valuable, either to themselves or to society.

This finding is key to crafting effective messaging for social causes, says Cosme, a research director at the Annenberg School for Communication’s Communication Neuroscience Lab. Knowing the psychological ingredients that make a person share a post on social media can help scientists share facts about climate change or public health officials dispel myths about vaccines.

Cosme’s research shows that people pay more attention to information they perceive to be related to themselves.

Similarly, humans are social beings and love to connect with each other. Sharing information activates reward centers in our brain. And when we communicate with others, we consider what the other person is thinking or wants to hear — a quality known as social relevance.

For Cosme’s study, participants were exposed to articles and social media posts about health, climate change, voting, and COVID-19. Some participants read headlines and summaries of news articles, others looked at social media posts. All of the participants rated how likely they were to share each message and how relevant they found each one to themselves and to people they know.

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