Scrolling through the average Facebook feed is often a baffling experience. Why, for instance, did that aunt’s friend decide now was a good time repost an article about Pizzagate? And why, for a hot second a couple years ago, did it seem as if every single friend from college was posting the inexplicably popular BuzzFeed quiz, “What Country Do You Actually Belong In?”
While a pair of new studies doesn’t provide answers to these exact questions, they do examine and analyze what goes on in our brains when we decide to share content. In the first study, neuroimaging (via fMRI) was used to study the brain activity of 80 participants as they read the headlines and short descriptions of dozens of health articles in the New York Times. While the topics and length of the selected stories were similar, the number of times they were shared on Facebook, Twitter, and by email ranged from 34 to 12,743.
When asked to select the articles they’d share, activity in the brain regions associated with assessing value, self-related thinking, and, crucially, considering other people’s perspective showed a flurry of activity. The results were published in Psychological Science.
In a second study, published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, researchers recorded participants brain activity as they decided whether to share an article, analyzed the data, and then used it to select which New York Times articles they believed were the most innately sharable. The articles that elicited the most brain activity in the above brain regions aligned with the articles that, per data from the New York Times, had been shared the most within the publication’s overall readership.
So what connects articles that get lots of reposts on social media? According to Emily Falk, the study’s lead author, we share content in an attempt to achieve “positive social consequences,” and as a result tend to post stuff we think will make us look smart, informed, or will connect us to others and improve our relationships with people in our network.
Because we’re using articles in this way—essentially, to signal how we want other people to view us—certain content tends to spread more quickly, such as articles that illustrate our awareness of an issue, or say something about our personality, or place us firmly in a particular group. (I’m hypothesising here, but I this is why BuzzFeed-style quizzes such as “25 Signs You Had No Chill as a Child” are inherently shareable.) Meanwhile, “a logical and well-argued presentation of facts,” at least on its own, might not be enough to incite widescale sharing, says Falk.
Although political articles are outside the scope of her two research papers, Falk believes the underlying mechanisms of why and how we share can be applied to the rise of political content being posted via social media. Sharing is about identity, and political ideology is a convenient litmus test to judge how someone sees the world. Sharing articles that take a strong stance on the election results or the immigration ban, for example, “help people express who they are, or bond with people they think are also part of that group,” says Falk.
Hence, perhaps, the Pizzagate reference in my Facebook feed.