Sharing is caring: Studies reveal how our brains turn content into viral gold

PHILADELPHIA — As more companies allocate larger budgets for digital marketing and social media promotions, exploring how content becomes viral is a pressing inquiry in many fields. Two new studies reveal that thinking about ourselves and others while reading content drives our choices of what to read and share.

Elisa Baek and Christin Scholz, Ph.D. students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, have written two research papers exploring and describing how our brains choose what content to check out and share, thus turning something viral.

Emily Falk, Ph.D., is the senior author on both papers and the Director of Penn’s Communication Neuroscience Lab. In the first study, Falk and the two lead authors used fMRI technology to observe the brain activity of a group of 80 young adults (ages 18-24) while they read the headlines and abstracts of 80 New York Times health-related articles. The articles were of similar length and covered subjects such as healthy living, nutrition and fitness.

iPad, social media, computer
A new study examining how and why content goes viral finds that people are thinking about their relationship with others when it comes to sharing something online.

Researchers concentrated on observing brain activity in three regions of the brain: the areas associated with thinking about one’s self, with mentalizing or imagining what others will think or experience, and with valuation. These brain processes “combine unconsciously in our minds to produce an overall signal about an article’s value,” leading us to decide what to share, according to a university news release.

They found that whether subjects were choosing what they wanted to read or what they wanted to share, they thought of both themselves and others. While people might read and share an article for many different reasons — to educate themselves, make themselves appear to have a positive trait like empathy, spread humor or share a life hack — the subjects displayed the highest level of neural activity in both the self and other-centered areas of the brain when it came to deciding what content to share.

“When you’re thinking about what to read yourself and about what to share, both are inherently social, and when you’re thinking socially, you’re often thinking about yourself and your relationships to others,” says Baek in the release. “Your self-concept and understanding of the social world are intertwined.”

In the second study, the researchers evaluated whether this test groups’ choices would predict the articles’ virality in the real world. Even though the subjects “represented different demographics than the overall New York Times readership,” their brain activity showed they valued articles in a manner that accurately matched the global popularity of the articles.

“If we can use a small number of brains to predict what large numbers of people who read the New York Times are doing, it means that similar things are happening across people,” says Scholz. “The fact that the articles strike the same chord in different brains suggests that similar motivations and similar norms may be driving these behaviors. Similar things have value in our broader society.”

Scholz predicts that content that is crafted “in a way that makes the reader understand how it’s going to make them look positive or how it could enhance a relationship,” is more likely to be shared, and in effect, go viral.

The first study, “The Value of Sharing Information: A Neural Account of Information Transmission,” will be published in Psychological Science

The second study, “A Neural Model of Valuation and Information Virality” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).