What makes a story go viral?

In today's multi-media world, what makes a story spread like wildfire? Your brainwaves might hold the answer, reports Tim Wallace.

In a multi-media world, what makes a story go viral?
Alys Tomlinson

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 intertwined."

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 personally.

"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. [https://www.asc.upenn.edu/news-events/news/how-your-brain-makes-articles-go-viral] "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."

  1. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/02/22/1615259114.full.pdf
  2. http://[https://www.asc.upenn.edu/news-events/news/how-your-brain-makes-articles-go-viral
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