The science of social media
Is it witchcraft that draws you into Facebook time and time again, or maybe you’re just a sucker for clicking on those heartwarming, Upworthy, restore-your-faith-in-humanity headlines? The allure behind social media isn’t just the emotional imagery of cute cat pictures or hilarious memes; there’s actually some real science behind it. Social media sharing has a lot to do with the human brain. Get ready for some science, because I’m about to blow your mind.
First: say hello to the Temporal Parietal Junction
The Temporal Parietal Junction, or TPJ, is the area of the brain where the temporal and parietal lobes meet, just behind the ears. The TPJ plays a key role in self-perception and emotional processing. Basically, your TPJ is the driving force behind your social cognition — how you feel about yourself physically and emotionally, in relation to others, and it also plays a part in understanding and processing the emotions of others. The TPJ is the master behind empathy.
The University of California Los Angeles conducted a study to find out why some images and posts resonate more than others; why do we “like” or “share” some things but completely ignore others? What makes a post go viral and what creates buzz? What they found may surprise you.
Our brains are literally wired to want to share information with others
People are attuned to look for things that are not only useful or interesting to themselves, but to other people. UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, Matthew Lieberman, explained in the news release on UCLA.edu that, “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.”
The study showed that increased activity in the TPJ region was associated with an increased ability to share ideas. They found that it didn’t matter how appealing or cool the images or ideas were personally to the study’s participants, but how they perceived others might value the image or idea.
Good ideas make us want to tell other people. What makes an idea “good” is how our mentalizing network in the brain processes how it may interest or benefit other people. And most of the time, this is a pretty automatic process — we don’t even think about it when we’re doing it.
The proof is in the social
Picture this: you’re scrolling through Twitter or Facebook or Reddit. Some posts you click on and quickly forget; others make you feel like you need to share it — immediately. That, friends, is your TPJ at work.
People are inherently social. We want to interact with other humans. We’re hardwired from infancy to look to the people we trust for social cues and guidance. But there are a lot of factors at play for why the TPJ region lights up when presented with some viral-worthy material.
The “why” stems from a couple of psychological theories, including Social Proof and Gestalt
The social proof theory is basically the rational explanation behind a herd mentality. We tend to like to go with the flow, to do what other people are doing. The same thing applies to social media — we’re more likely to share something that someone we trust has already shared.
Gestalt theory encompasses the idea that you cannot understand something by looking at the sum of the individual parts, you must look at the whole. In terms of social media, Gestalt theory plays a part in the visual understanding. The human brain likes making connections, seeking patterns, and filling in the blanks. When we see something that engages us, and/or makes us think that others would be engaged too, that’s the social sweet spot.
Understanding your viewers is critical for engagement
So how do you get those Temporal Parietal Junctions lighting up and turning your posts viral? In all aspects, keep in mind that your content should be something that your audience would share with friends and family.
Be human. Understand your audience and demographic. What appeals to them, and what kinds of things would they think that their friends or family might enjoy.
Be trustworthy. People are more likely to accept ideas and information from someone they trust. Develop trust by delivering on your promises. The consumer needs to believe that not only will you deliver on your promises for him or her, but that other people will also enjoy the same experience.
Be visual. Our thoughts and feelings are often influenced on a subconscious level. “Beautiful photos, simple messages and uppercase words,” according to Sonya Song, are is more likely to more attract attention on an unconscious level, which in turn may encourage more sharing. “Sophisticated language,” surprising messages and turning points tend to attract more conscious and meaningful attention, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into more shares.
Be emotional. People share stories with different emotions to different audiences, such as friends and family. The more intense the emotion, the more likely it is to be shared. However, Song found that if a story isn’t widely shared, but has a lot of passionate comments, it may be because people are worried about upsetting social relationships by sharing offensive stories.
Remember, going viral is not about whether or not your audience will like something. It’s about whether or not your audience thinks that their friends will like it.