What makes a story go viral?

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

You’re reading this article, but will you share it? That
depends, new research confirms, not just on whether you think others might like
it but also on mental calculations of a somewhat more self-interested nature:
will sharing this content reflect positively on you, or at least communicate to
others some aspect of self-identity you hold dear?

“When you’re thinking about what to read yourself and
about what to share, both are inherently social, and when you’re thinking
socially, you’re often thinking about yourself and your relationships to
others,” says Elisa Baek, co-lead author of two new research papers from a
team at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
“Your self-concept and understanding of the social world are

To better understand what causes some articles but not others to go “viral” via social
media, the research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to
map the neural activity of 80 participants as they viewed a selection of headlines
and abstracts of articles from the New York Times. All the articles covered
similar topics – health, nutrition and fitness – and were of similar word
length. Participants were asked to rate how likely they would be to both read
and share individual articles.

In the first of two papers about the experiment’s finding,
“A Neural Model of Valuation and Information Virality”, published
this week in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences
, the researchers report that their neural data showed both personal reading and
social sharing decisions engaged the regions of the brain associated with
self-related thinking, with  imagining
what others might think, and with overall value.

Which is to say, when making what was the more obvious
personal decision (reading an article), subjects were also thinking about how
others might relate to the information; and when choosing what to share,
subjects were also weighing up how it would affect judgements by others of them

“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,” explains Emily Falk, a senior author on both papers
and the director of Penn’s Communication Neuroscience Lab.
“They share things that might improve their relationships, make them look
smart or empathic or cast them in a positive light.”

The second paper, “The Value of Sharing Information: A
Neural Account of Information Transmission,” which will be published in Psychological Science, suggests the
neural activity identified in the study can help predict and even shape
virality of news articles.

“If we can use a small number of brains to predict what
large numbers of people who read the New
York Times
are doing, it means that similar things are happening across
people,” says co-lead author Christin Scholtz. “The fact that the
articles strike the same chord in different brains suggests that similar
motivations and similar norms may be driving these behaviors. Similar things
have value in our broader society.”

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