What makes a post go viral? The answer is all about your motivation

PHILADELPHIA — Plenty of posts on social media go viral, with people viewing, sharing, and commenting on them thousands of times. Far more posts, however, receive little to no engagement. So, what gives? Why are certain posts so much more palatable to the social media landscape than others? A new study finds the answer is all in your head.

Findings published in 2022 from the Communication Neuroscience Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania indicate social media users tend to be more likely to share posts containing information that they personally feel is relevant to either themselves or the people in their lives. In simpler terms, study authors say people like sharing posts that they believe have real value, either to themselves or to their friends and family.

Now, this latest research project has uncovered that simply encouraging people to consider the perceived value of a post led to increased activity in the areas of the brain associated with sharing decisions, thus increasing a person’s motivation to share an article.

“A lot of prior research on what makes posts go viral has focused on identifying the characteristics of messages that are shared often or not shared often,” says lead author Christin Scholz, an assistant professor in Persuasive Communication at the University of Amsterdam and an Annenberg graduate, in a university release. “We’re looking at the neural mechanisms of sharing decisions. Targeting those mechanisms could be a way to encourage the spread of high quality health information.”

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This project was led by senior author Emily Falk, Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Marketing and Director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab. Study participants had to consider sharing articles about healthy living from The New York Times, all while researchers monitored and measured their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Inside the fMRI scanner, the volunteers were also asked to think about sharing an article with a specific goal in mind. The two possible goals were either to “help somebody” (use the article to relate positively to others) or to “describe yourself” (use the article to present yourself positively to others). Meanwhile, as a control, some participants were assigned the neutral “to spread information” goal.

“In all areas of life, people want to present themselves in a positive light or to relate positively to others,” Prof. Scholz explains. “Our method encourages people to identify ways in which they can fulfill these motives through the sharing of health articles. If they are successful, they should be more likely to decide to share the article.”

Considering others increases brain activity

After reading the headline and summary of a health-related article, study authors told the group to think about what they might say or write to another study participant if they were going to share the article with them, all while keeping in mind their assigned goal. Finally, each person had to rate the likelihood they would share the article in real life.

Pondering sharing articles in terms of how it might help someone else not only increased activation in certain brain regions associated with self-related thinking, value-related thinking, and social-related thinking (especially “mentalizing,” the act of imagining what others are thinking), but also increased individuals’ self-reported willingness to share an article.

“I think we’re only scratching the surface in terms of how you could encourage people to share high quality health information,” Prof. Scholz concludes. “A health communicator might want to focus on being accurate and clear and not have to worry about whether their content is emotional to get clicks. We’re trying to find ways to focus on the would-be sharer, to help them find personal meaning in sharing content that can benefit others and society.”

The study is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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