Not all content is transmitted in the same way by social networks and our brain influences the decision to share or not an article on the internet. An investigation by the University of Pennsylvania has detected the keys to predicting the virality of a network content based on the reader’s brain activity.
What makes a content viral when shared on social networks? What process takes place in our brain to determine if it is worth sharing a particular article?
Two Ph.D. students at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, USA), Christin Scholz and Elisa Baek are the main authors of two papers that on the one hand measure brain activity when reading an article and on the other predict when that content is going to be shared in social networks. The results are published in the journals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and Psychological Science.
The study involved 80 people whose brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging while reading 80 articles published in the New York Times.
When it comes to valuing and sharing content, people think about themselves and others
The selected articles were related to health issues (nutrition, fitness, healthy life) and all had a similar extent. Participants valued their interest in reading and sharing them as investigators performed the measurements.
Scientists focused on regions of the brain related to the image subjects have of themselves and what other people might think of those individuals.
“People read or share content that connects with their own experiences, with their sense of who they are or want to become. They share things that can improve their relationships, make them look smarter or empathic”
– explains one of the co-authors of both studies, Emily Falk.
Neuronal data collected during the study suggest that when people choose to read or recommend to others, they think of themselves as well as others, showing the highest levels of activity in these neuronal systems.
“When you think about what you’re going to read and what you’re going to share, both are inherently social thoughts, and when you think socially, you often think about yourself and your relationship with others. The social world and the concept you have of yourself are intertwined”
-says Elisa Baek.
The work centered on these measurements will be published in the journal Psychological Science while the second phase of the study will appear on PNAS, which is concerned with predicting the virality of these contents.
Using the brain activity of the same subjects during the first phase of the research and using the same articles, the authors predicted the virality of content among the New York Times readership that were shared a total of 117,611 times.
They detected that the brain activity in the studied regions was combined, unconsciously, generating a signal that gave a value to the article. That signal is what predicts what we are going to share and what not.
“If you create a message that the reader believes will make you more positively perceived, we can predict the likelihood of that message being shared”
Although study subjects are between ages 18 to 24, many university students in the Philadelphia area represented demographic groups other than the average Times readers, their activity in key areas of the brain that measure the value of articles matched their overall popularity.
“The fact that these articles are in the same tune in different brains implies that there are similar motivations and rules that can lead to these behaviors”
– says Christin Scholz, another coauthor.
In addition, it recognizes that the image we have of ourselves or other people and the motivations to share those contents will be different according to each individual.
For example, someone will think that an article will make their friends laugh while another person will share it because it thinks it can be helpful for a friend to solve a particular problem.
“In practice, if you create a message that the reader believes is going to make him or her feel more positive or can improve a relationship, we can predict that the likelihood of that message sharing will grow,”
However, despite different motivations, the neural activities are the same and serve as a common denominator for several types of social and self-referential thinking.