It is not a secret that people do things that make them feel better or that provide an immediate reward. That is also the reason behind people sharing certain news on social networks and why those news reports become viral news.
More than 4 billion messages are shared daily on Facebook, 500 million on Twitter and 200 billion more sent by email.
In all this formidable flow of information, some issues are universal winners: viral topics and news, which are massively shared worldwide.
News virality and the desire to discover the reasons behind why people share certain news and not others was the subject of a study conducted by researchers who sought to deepen the knowledge about such a virality. They then began to scrutinize the brains of a few humans.
The result of this work showed that virality does not depend so much on the content of the news but on people themselves. What do people want to get out of sharing a news report or an image?
Apparently, people seek to “sell” to others news and information that will help strengthen their links to those people with whom they shared those news and images.
To understand the brain’s functioning in the face of viral news, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted two experiments with 80 subjects who reported news from The New York Times, one of the oldest and more circulated newspapers in the United States.
In particular, they were shown health news from the New York newspaper, chosen among the most shared, according to the paper’s own records.
They let the subjects read the headline and a summary of the news and asked them if they would like to read it whole or share it publicly or privately with their Facebook friends.
Researchers observed that during the experiment the brain regions that correspond to two well-located mental processes were activated.
The first area was that which makes people think about themselves, which is understood as the benefit or image improvement that the subject thought would occur after sharing the news report.
“Evidence suggests that self-relevant issues are among the most frequent topics of conversation, especially in social media, and that revealing information about the self may be inherently rewarding,” the authors write in their study published in PNAS.
“Through this neural mechanism, the expectations of positive results on oneself by sharing news increase the perceived value of information exchange, which in turn increases the probability of sharing it,” they add. In other words, people share news reports not because they think it is relevant to their contacts but because they think they are aligned with their own version of reality and also because, perhaps, people will perceive them as smart or well-informed.
On the other hand, in these experiments they observed that the region in which the brain works to understand what the others are thinking was also put into operation.
As they explain in the study, whoever tries to share a story should consider what is in the minds of others, their knowledge, opinions and interests, to predict the possible reactions.
“This type of social cognition involves predictions about the mental states of others, for example, predicting what others can think and feel about shared information and who shares it,” they say.
Thus, by posting something on our wall we expose ourselves to the judgment of others by making a bet: this will please and help us to improve our common bonds and what they think about me.
In addition, the result of the experiment was that the news that most activated these regions of the brain coincided with the information that achieved the greatest impact on social networks, which were also shared thousands of times.
“People are interested in reading or sharing content that connects with their own experiences, or with their sense of who they are or who they want to be,” says Emily Falk, head of the work and director of the neuroscience laboratory, in a note from the University Of Pennsylvania.
She adds: “They share things that can improve their relationships, make them appear intelligent or empathetic or show them in a positive light.”
In the case of viral news, several phenomena that were previously known would work at the same time, as one of the most satisfying things is to share information about ourselves, both in social networks and in conventional interactions.
We also knew that the most persuasive people, those who get their message to others in a better way, are those who have the most developed ability to put themselves in the place of others, to venture what is in their mind.
The authors of the study recognize that what is personally relevant and useful to share among different subjects may be very different, but that “human societies are characterized by a set of basic common values and social norms that drive behavior among individuals.”
Consequently, they conclude, it is not uncommon for many news to be perceived by many as valuable information, both for the personal image and for the sense of belonging to the group.