5 reasons why people share to social media

1. Neuroscience: We share to entertain, inspire, and be useful

Even though social media does have a tendency of having people focus on themselves, the primary reason that people share things on their Facebook pages or Twitter feeds, research shows, is to be useful to others.


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In a 2013 study conducted by psychologists at UCLA, the researchers were, for the first time, able to determine which brain regions are associated with ideas that become contagious and which regions are associated with being an effective communicator of ideas.

The TPJ or the temporoparietal junction is this area of the brain that lit up during functional magnetic resonance imagine (fMRI) brain scans when people were first exposed to new ideas that they would later recommend.

Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and author of the book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, noted:

Our study suggests that people are regularly attuned to how the things they’re seeing will be useful and interesting, not just to themselves, but also to other people. We always seem to be on the lookout for who else will find this helpful, amusing or interesting, and our brain data are showing evidence of that. At the first encounter with information, people are already using the brain network involved in thinking about how this can be interesting to other people. We’re wired to want to share information with other people. I think that is a profound statement about the social nature of our minds.

2. Psychology: We share to express who we really are

In 1986, psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius recognized that there is a disparity between our “now self” and our “possible self.”

In a paper they published at the time, they developed the concept of our possible selves:

  1. the ideal selves that we would like to become
  2. the selves that we could become, and
  3. the selves that we are afraid of becoming

This first self, the idealized version of ourselves is what we frequently tend to share on social media.

Whether or not this representation of our possible self is realistic or not is irrelevant, researchers note. The point is that we’re picturing in our minds this possible self that we are or may someday be and sharing information that fits in with this notion of who we are.

When we share in this mode, sometimes what we’re sharing is a sense of our ideal self and who we aspire to be. This is why some people share political commentary, outrage over particular issues, and success stories of people who they hope they can be like someday.

As the authors themselves so eloquently note:

Possible selves contribute to the fluidity or malleability of the self because they are differentially activated by the social situation and determine the nature of the working self-concept. At the same time, the individual’s hopes and fears, goals and threats, and the cognitive structures that carry the are defining features of the self-concept: these features provide some of the most compelling evidence of continuity of identity across time.

3. Community: To nurture our relationships

Whenever I see a funny comic about procrastination, I share it with my closest friend, a proud procrastinator. Whenever I see a funny dog video, I send it straight to my father-in-law, the animal lover.

Every time I see any of these things, I feel an immediate connection to those people. I think of them and feel the urge to share what I’ve found with them.

I’m not alone.

In a study undertaken by The New York Times Customer Insight Group in conjunction with Latitude Research titled “The Psychology of Sharing: Why Do People Share Online?” 78% of respondents said that they shared information online because it let them stay connected to people they may not otherwise stay in touch with.

Further, 73% of them said they shared information because it allowed them to connect with others who shared their interests.

4. Motivation: To feel more involved

In my days of daily journalism, an editor at a local newspaper once told me his fix for a slow news day.

Dogs and babies.

“They’re cute,” he would say. “They pull at your heartstrings. No one can resist a cuddly dog or a cute baby. Preferably both together.”

The medium may have changed but the message hasn’t. People still love cuddly dogs, cute babies, preferably both together.

In fact, as far back as fifty years ago, studies were being undertaken to see why people talked about brands and coming to the same conclusions that we are today. In 1966, in a study reported on by the Harvard Business Review, the researcher Earnest Dichter found that 64% of sharing is about the sharer themselves.

He noted that there were four motivations for a person to communicate about a brand.

  1. The first (about 33% of the time) was because of product-involvement, that is the experience was so good, unique, or new that it had to be shared.
  2. The second (about 24%) was self-involvement, that is, to gain attention by showing people that you were part of an exclusive club of buyers or had inside information.
  3. The third (around 20%) was other-involvement, that is wanting to help out and express caring or friendship.
  4. And finally, the fourth (also around 20%) was message-involvement, that is, the message was so wonderful or funny or brilliant that it deserved to be shared.

5. Altruism: To get the word out about specific causes

In the New York Times Customer Insight Group report, 84% of respondents said they share because “it is a way to support causes or issues they care about.”

In fact, the report further goes to show that 85% of people say reading other people’s responses helps them understand and process information and events. So not only do we share information about the causes that are dear to us, but we respond to causes that are dear to other people if they take the time to share that information with us through social media.

Remember the ALS Ice Bucket challenge?

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