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Image of human brain on blue background. Psychology of social media blog post

Psychology of Social Media: The Science Behind Why People Share Online

Nick Rogers

Sep 27, 2018

Have you ever wondered why some content on social media goes viral? Or why seemingly strange social media trends catch fire and others fall flat?

Believe it or not, there’s a whole lot of science behind why people like, comment, and share online.

Understanding the psychology of social media and why people share online is the first step in creating better experiences, stronger relationships, and exponentially greater marketing content.

Psychology of Social Media: The Science Behind Why People Share Online

As businesses and brands, we’re all looking for ways to drive more engagement to our content online, whether that’s on social media or elsewhere. 

Luckily for us, the New York Times conducted an incredible study that is still as relevant as ever today about the psychology of online sharing. They named five primary motivations for sharing:

  1. People want to better the lives of others (94%)
  2. People want the content to reflect their online identity (68%)
  3. People want to grow and nourish relationships (80%)
  4. People share because they like the feeling of having others comment on it and engage (81%)
  5. People want to spread the word about something that they believe in (84%)
psychology of social media

UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and author of the book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, Matthew Lieberman, observed 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.

Looking at some of the most successful social media posts of 2017, it might be unclear to the untrained eye what made them so popular. However, from a scientific perspective, we can begin to understand why. 

The New York Times, for example, posted a behind-the-scenes video about how Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You‘ was made:

‘Shape of You’: Making 2017’s Biggest Track

Turn up your volume one last time for 2017 — here’s how Ed Sheeran made "Shape of You."

Posted by The New York Times on Wednesday, December 20, 2017

This video incredibly effective from a psychological standpoint for various reasons, including: 

  • Shape of You was one of the most popular songs of 2017 and so people were looking to identify themselves with that song on social media – a reflection of themselves and their taste in music.
  • People were looking to nourish their relationships with others (friends and family) by sharing a video they knew they would enjoy as well – due to the popularity of the song.

Why Emotions are a Powerful Tool in Online Sharing

In a wonderful study titled, “Why Content Goes Viral”, Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business (and author of the book Contagious), and co-author Katy Milkman looked at 7,000 articles published at The New York Times to see which ones got the most views and social shares and why.

Berger and Milkman found that the more the content evoked a high-arousal emotion such as awe, anger, anxiety, fear, sadness, humor, or wonder, the better its chances of being shared repeatedly and even virality.

Humans are full of emotions. By tapping into emotion, we as brands and businesses have the chance to connect with our customers (humans) on an impactful level. Not to mention increase shares online! 

Robert Plutchik’s famous “wheel of emotions” shows just how many emotional layers humans are capable of feeling:

psychology of social media

Referring back to the New York Times article we discussed earlier, perhaps the most powerful emotion of all is happiness.

Researchers found that happiness is the main driver for social media sharing. Emotions layered with and related to happiness make up the majority of the most successful and viral content online. 

Still not convinced?

Google’s Abigail Posner describes happiness sharing as “energy exchange”:

When we see or create an image that enlivens us, we send it to others to give them a bit of energy and effervescence. Every gift holds the spirit of the gifter.

Giving Your Audience the Motivation to Share

From viral golf tournaments and film festivals to the most successful television series on social media, today brands and businesses are faced with the never-ending challenge of finding and creating content that people actually want to share. 

By considering the psychology of why people share online, you’ll be able to strategically identify a winning formula for marketing content on a consistent basis.

If you’re interested in going down that path, we can help you on your journey with our social listening solution.