I Share, Therefore I Know
Sharing articles on social media, even when we haven’t read them, can lead us to believe we are experts on a topic.
Based on the research of Susan M. Broniarczyk and Adrian Ward
After people post an article about a given topic — heart disease, the rules of hockey, or how to plan a budget vacation — on their social media, they often think they know more about the article’s topic than they actually do.
Texas McCombs Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Marketing Susan M. Broniarczyk and Assistant Professor of Marketing Adrian Ward set out to discover what’s behind this inflated sense of self-knowledge after sharing content online.
In a new study, Broniarczyk, Ward, and Frank Zheng, a McCombs marketing doctoral alum, found that social media sharers believe they’re knowledgeable about the content they share, even if they haven’t read it or if they’ve only glanced at a headline.
Sharing can create a rise in confidence because by putting information online, sharers publicly commit to an expert identity. Doing so shapes their sense of self, helping them to feel just as knowledgeable as their post makes them seem. This is especially true when people share articles with close friends.
Adopting an Expert Identity
The researchers conducted several studies that support their theory. In an initial one, they presented 98 undergraduate students with a set of online news articles and told them they were free to read, share, or do both as they saw fit. Headlines included “Men are Better at Recognizing Flirting Than Women Are” and “Why it Pays to Be a Jerk.”
Next, the researchers measured participants’ subjective and objective knowledge for each article — what the students thought they knew, and what they actually knew. Reading articles led to increases in both the participants’ objective and subjective knowledge.
Sharing articles also predicted increases in their subjective knowledge — even when students hadn’t read the content they chose to share, and they therefore lacked objective knowledge about the articles’ content.
In a second study, the researchers tracked changes in subjective knowledge over time for participants who were asked to share an article that imparted tips on cancer prevention versus those who didn’t share the article.
People who shared came to believe they knew more about cancer than those who didn’t share, even if they hadn’t read the article — providing further evidence that sharing can cause increases in subjective knowledge, even when people lack objective knowledge.
Three additional studies then tested the idea that this effect occurs because people internalize their sharing behavior into the self-concept, and they consequently believe they’re as knowledgeable as their posts make them appear. Participants thought they knew more when their sharing publicly committed them to an expert identity: when sharing under their own identity versus an alias, when sharing with friends versus strangers, and when they had free choice in choosing what to share.
In a final study, the researchers tested whether sharers’ behavior would reflect the overconfidence they felt. They asked 300 active Facebook users to read an article on “How to Start Investing: A Guide for Beginners.”
Then, they assigned students to a sharing or no sharing group. All participants were told the content existed on several websites and saw Facebook posts with the sites. Sharers were asked to look at all posts and choose one to share on their Facebook page.
Next, in a supposedly unrelated task, participants completed a robo-advised retirement planning simulation. They learned that allocating more money to stocks is considered “more aggressive” investing and to bonds “more conservative,” and they received a customized investment recommendation based on their age.
Participants then distributed a hypothetical $10,000 in retirement funds between stocks and bonds. The researchers found that sharers took significantly more investment risk, dedicating 60% on average to stocks versus the non-sharers’ 54%. Those who shared articles were twice as likely to take more risk than recommended by the robo-adviser.
“When people feel they’re more knowledgeable, they’re more likely to make riskier decisions.” — Adrian Ward
The findings are especially relevant in a world in which it’s all too simple to share content online without reading it.
Recent data from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism show only 51% of consumers who “read” an online news story actually read the whole article, while 26% read part, and 22% looked at just the headline or a few lines.
Broniarczyk, Ward, and Zheng’s research also suggests that there’s merit to social media companies that have piloted ways to encourage people to read articles before sharing. For example, both Facebook and Twitter have experimented with this type of approach.
“Anything that’s effective in getting people to read articles or recalibrate their self-knowledge is important, especially in this digital world where content is more easily sharable.” — Adrian Ward
Consumers should pay close attention to their online reading and sharing habits, too, to make sure their sharing behavior isn’t making them overconfident. Overconfidence on a topic can lead people to become entrenched in their beliefs and resistant to change.
“If people feel more knowledgeable on a topic, they also feel they maybe don’t need to read or learn additional information on that topic,” Broniarczyk says. “This miscalibrated sense of knowledge can be hard to correct.”
“I Share, Therefore I Know? Sharing Online Content — Even Without Reading It — Inflates Subjective Knowledge” is forthcoming, online in advance in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
Story by Deborah Lynn Blumberg