The Psychology of How and Why We Share on Social Media

11 minute read

Psychology of Social Sharing.

You scroll through your Facebook feed, skimming post after post, ignoring most, liking a few.

After a couple of swipes on the trackpad, you stop. There’s a video that catches your eye and after watching it, you feel compelled to share it with your friends.

Every day citizens of the internet go through this same routine. But what makes us stop and share one piece of content when nearly everything else gets ignored?

Is it the type of content? Is it the source of the content? Or totally unrelated to the content?

The psychology of sharing has been studied by academics and marketers alike. New York Times best-selling author Tucker Max boils the psychology of sharing down to one word, “status.

“Word of mouth is a status play. If you give people something good, something valuable, they want to talk about it. It benefits them to talk about it…if I share a book with you, it raises my status, it helps me look good to my friends that I know this and now I’m sharing it with you.”  

Is it that simple? Do we want to share content that makes us look good? Or are there deeper psychological reasons why we share?

The Godfather of Modern Sharing

To really understand the psychology of sharing, we have to go back to 1966. Long before we had the retweet, Austrian psychologist, Ernest Dichter, published the Harvard Business Review article “How Word-of-Mouth Advertising Works.”

In his article, Dichter outlined four reasons that motivate people to talks about brands and products.

  1. Product Involvement (33%) – The customer’s experience is so pleasurable, it has to be shared.
  2. Self-Involvement (24%) – You, as the sharer, gain attention, feel special, like you have inside information or are the first to know.
  3. Other Involvement (20%) – The sharer wants to help others.
  4. Message – Involvement (20%) – The message is so valuable that it has to be shared.

He concluded that “When the consumer feels that the advertiser speaks to him as a friend…the consumer will relax and tend to accept the recommendation.

Ernest Dichter’s research made him a pioneer in marketing.

He took his studies of human motivation and applied them to marketing for big companies like Procter & Gamble, and General Mills. Many of the strategies and tactics we use today for sharing is based on Dichter’s research.
Related: 6 Ways to Get All Employees Active in Social Media Marketing

Why We Share and Who Does the Sharing?

Fast forward fifty years from Dichter’s breakthrough research and we have a whole new set of tools that help facilitate the spread of communication. The fundamentals of word-of-mouth are the same. But now people are sharing on so many different channels. The content they share on different channels differs. What people share on Instagram is different than Facebook, which is different than Twitter.

The New York Times Customer Insight Group published the study, “The Psychology of Sharing” which divided why we share into five categories and further broke down the personas of people who share into six profiles.

Why We Share

  1. To bring valuable and entertaining content to others.
  2. To define ourselves to others.
  3. To grow and nourish our relationships.
  4. Self-fulfillment.
  5. To get the word out about causes or brands.


Personas of Sharers (Preferred Channels)

  1. Altruists – share content to be helpful. (Facebook, Email)
  2. Careerists – share to build a professional reputation. (Linkedin, Email)
  3. Hipsters – share cutting edge and creative content that builds their identity. (Facebook, Twitter)
  4. Boomerangs – share content to get reaction from audience, seeks validation. (Facebook, Twitter)
  5. Connectors – share content to stay connected with others and make plans. (Facebook, Email)
  6. Selectives – put more thought into what they share and with whom they share it. (Email)

While looking at the findings, it’s remarkably similar to Dichter’s original findings and back up Max’s assertion that it’s all about status. Whether it’s to entertain friends or build professional relationships, we want to share for our own self-interests.

But the last reason why we share, spread the word about causes or brands, touches on another major reason why we share: emotion.

Jonah Berger and Emotion

Jonah Berger is a professor at the Wharton School  of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the New York Times bestseller, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On is a New York Times.”

Berger’s research focuses on six principles that cause something to be wildly shared and go viral:

  • Social Currency: We share things that make us look good
  • Triggers: Easily memorable information means it’s top of mind and tip of the tongue.
  • Emotion: When we care, we share.
  • Public: Built to show, built to grow.
  • Practical Value: News people can use.
  • Stories: People are inherent storytellers, and all great brands also learn to tell stories. Information travels under the guise of idle chatter.

Berger’s findings have similarities with Dichter and the New York Times, but he digs deeper into the role emotion plays in our social sharing.

After analyzing seven thousand articles on the New York Times, Berger and his colleague discovered there were two primary factors that lead an article to be one of the newspaper’s most emailed articles: how positive the article was and how excited it made the reader.

These studies into the psychology of sharing aren’t just theoretical musings of academics. New media and content companies have taken this research and built big businesses around the factors that compel us to share.
Psychology of Social Sharing

How Companies Leverage the Psychology of Sharing

Joe Matsushima is the co-founder of Denizen Company and part of the creative team behind the viral hit, Tiny Hamster Eats Tiny Burritos.

His videos have been viewed by millions of people across the globe. When asked what he thinks causes people to share something online, he answered with a mix of status and emotion.

“Sharing is a fascinating phenomenon because liking–or even loving something doesn’t necessarily lead to sharing it with your peers. Typically what leads a person to share something on social media is when it has a connection to them as an individual, be it political, emotional, cute or funny. People want to share with others how they perceive the world and reflect their tastes and how they define themselves.”

Joe has made a career of tapping into audience’s’ emotion through video content. Similarly, Buzzfeed is a highly trafficked website that also uses reader emotion to spread its content.

Buzzfeed has done this particularly well, by creating content that taps into our nostalgia for 90s related content and quizzes about TV shows that have long been off the air. But they also balance this content with timely content that tugs at our heartstrings and makes us feel good. And cats. There are always cats.  

Emotion is a two-sided coin and not everything is hugs and kittens.

Negative emotion can ignite social sharing just as much as a positive emotion. Outrage is a feeling that can cause people to share just as much as a funny video.

Stories like this waitress being left a $0 tip set off a firestorm of social sharing. Emotion is a huge part of sharing, the key is to hit one end of the positive or negative spectrum. Anything that falls between gets lost with the rest of the average content.  

At the end of the day, the psychology of sharing is much simpler than one might anticipate.

Status and emotion are the two driving forces behind sharing. It doesn’t matter which sharing persona you fit, everyone is motivated by these two factors when they share something online.

What This Means for You

Before you create your next piece of content, ask yourself who the content is for and if it really satisfies status or emotion? Will sharing make someone seem smarter to their friends? Does it elicit so much happiness that you have to share?

Remember, liking something isn’t enough. You must strike a chord with your audience that triggers such a strong response, they have to share.

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