What does it take to make an article or video “go viral” online? Social media managers and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) professionals usually are the experts on using the right hashtags and buzzwords, but it’s also been the subject of some neuroscience research as well. Recently, a video of a group of turkeys circling a cat in the road was trending and next week it could be a laughing baby or a puppy that barks out the alphabet. The question becomes, why do people share this stuff? What happens in the brain that makes a person decide to share something?
Two Ph.D. students at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania wanted to find out as well, and they turned to functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain (fMRI) to see specifically the kind of brain activity that goes on when articles are read and the decision to share them (or not) is made. Christin Scholz and Elisa Baek, from the university are the two lead authors behind a pair of research papers that documented this decision making for the first time. The patterns of brain activity that were found were also analyzed, allowing researchers to reliably predict which articles most people would choose to share and the chances of them going viral.
Emily Falk, Ph.D. and senior author along with Scholz and Baek on both papers is the director of Penn's Communication Neuroscience Lab explained that certain areas in the brain are active in the decision to share an article via social media. She stated, "People are interested in reading or sharing content that connects to their own experiences, or to their sense of who they are or who they want to be. They share things that might improve their relationships, make them look smart or empathic or cast them in a positive light." Rather than the decision being about whether someone’s friends might enjoy a particular article, for the subjects in the study, it came down to deciding if an article would make them appear smarter or nicer in the eyes of their friends.
To get uniform results, the study used articles that concerned similar subject matter. All of the articles were from the New York Times and were about health lifestyle choices, fitness or nutrition and they all had about the same amount of words. 80 test subjects read the headlines and short descriptions of articles and then decided whether or not to share them. Investigators were able to see the brain activity as it happened, in real time with the use of fMRI scans. Areas of the brain that showed activity were those involved with imagining what others might think and areas involved in self-related thinking.
The second paper dealt with the ability of researchers to accurately predict which articles would be shared more. The brain activity was used to assign a value to each article. The more activity each article generated in the key brain areas, the more likely it was to go viral. Analyzing the brain activity in real time was found to be a useful took in predicting virality of certain articles. Social media experts know that the more an article is shared, the more it actually influences behavior, so seeing this kind of data, even in just a small study, is something SEO professionals will be looking at closely. Check out the video below to learn more about the research.
Sources: University of Pennsylvania, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, CosmosMagazine.com