What exactly is happening in our grey matter that makes us hit the share button in this age of social media? Why does one story go viral while another is consigned to obscurity?
Using an MRI, Christin Scholz and Elisa Baek, PhD candidates at the Annenberg School for Communication at UPenn, documented the specific brain activity that takes place when readers make the decision to hit "share."
They scanned the brains of 80 subjects as they viewed the headlines and abstracts of New York Times health articles. The subjects were asked which articles they would share and the scan measured their neural activity.
The research found that the factors at play in the modern-day phenomenon of viral social media are the same as the ones that been at play for millennia: Articles that stimulated the areas of the brain associated with self-interest and social cognition were most likely to be shared. The brain appears to quickly gauge articles that provide an opportunity to present ourselves in a positive light and to have a positive interaction with others.
"We think that this shows sharing is really grounded in very basic human motives and human motivations of creating positive relationships with other people, which is really related to how we evolved as a race," Scholz says. "It was very important for humans in evolution to relate to other humans to form social groups to survive and this is still very important to us today to have positive social relationships with other people."
Moreover, the MRI was a more accurate predictor of sharing activity than what the test subjects themselves reported to researchers. Results will be published in two upcoming articles in the scientific journals Psychological Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Although the test subjects were all from a very specific demographic—college students 18 to 24—the brain scan results were an accurate predictor of which of the articles involved went viral in the greater readership of the New York Times. The articles identified as shareable in the study were ultimately shared a combined total of 117,611 times by the broader readership.
"Each individual may share for a different specific reason: Somebody might share to make their friend laugh; someone else might share to help their friend achieve a certain goal; another person might share just to have a positive conversation with somebody else," Scholz says.
"What all of these three thoughts have in common is the social common denominator—somebody wants to relate positively to somebody else and that's what we're seeing in the brain activity."
So what does that tell media struggling to solve the riddle of viral news? "If I had a magic formula I would be a really rich person," Scholz says with a laugh.