“How Your Brain Makes Articles Go Viral”

c/o forbes.com

For every ice bucket challenge, there lay a million other digital initiative hopefuls that never get off the ground. But as has been frustratingly asked in countless company war rooms – WHY!? And how, as we discussed in class, can we predict virality?

Two Annenberg School Ph.D students, Christin Scholz and Elisa Baek used real-time brain activity fMRI to identify the specific brain activity that motivates us to read or share content. In their study, they measured 80 18-24 year old Philadelphians who reviewed headlines and abstracts of health articles published in the New York Times and rated how likely they were to read and share the articles.

Emily Falk, Ph.D., senior author on the resarch and the director of Penn’s Communication Neuroscience Lab believes that most often, it comes down to value. “Specific regions of the brain determine how valuable it would be to share information, and that value translates to its likelihood of going viral.” The researchers measured “regions of the brain associated with self-related thinking, regions associated with mentalizing — imagining what others might think — and with overall value.”

“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,” she says. “They share things that might improve their relationships, make them look smart or empathic or cast them in a positive light.”

Often that sharing is self interested, as time and time again we all can fall into “curating the best digital version’s of ourselves” to be perceived a certain way, they also discovered there is a very  unselfish intent – “the neural data suggest that people think about both themselves and others.”

And that value plays precisely into virality. In additional research, the researchers “examined the brain activity of their 80 subjects and predicted an article’s virality among the actual New York Times readership, which shared this group of articles a combined total of 117,611 times.They found that activity in the self-related and mentalizing regions of the brain combine unconsciously in our minds to produce an overall signal about an article’s value. That value signal then predicts whether or not we want to share.” 

And how can this be most useful to all of us, who in some form of another, spend much of our professional lives trying to convince someone to do something (and often making it popular on social media) to do many things- buy a product, subscribe to a service, listen to an episode, give to an institution:

“In practice, if you craft a message in a way that makes the reader understand how it’s going to make them look positive, or how it could enhance a relationship,” says Scholz, “then we predict it would increase the likelihood of sharing that message.”

Essentially, get into a user’s head- the classic “what’s in it for me?” thought process. A potential customer, whether consciously or not, when making a decision about buying or posting will think: “What will buying this product, giving to this institution, retweeting this link, say about me?” And as a professional, translate your thought process into: how can I package this into a shareable piece of content that a user would be pleased to be associated with?

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This entry was posted in Research, Social Behavior, Social Media, Social Media & Psychology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “How Your Brain Makes Articles Go Viral”

  1. sydhavely says:

    Well done, Nicole. Please talk more about the Annenberg researchers and their study findings in class.

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