Social Media Sharing: The Psychology of Why We Share

12 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. What makes us stop and share one piece of content when nearly everything else gets ignored?

Social media 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 just want to share content that makes us look good? Or is there more behind the psychology of why we share?

Let’s dive into social media sharing and the psychology of what inspires us to click “share.”

The Beginning of Social Sharing Psychology

To really understand the psychology of social media sharing, we have to go back to 1966. Long before we had the retweet an 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 on Social Media Today

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 an array of different channels. The content they share on various channels differs; what people share on Instagram is different from Facebook, which is different from Twitter.

iPhone with social media icons

The New York Times Customer Insight Group published the study, “The Psychology of Sharing” which divides why we share into these five categories.

1. To bring valuable and entertaining content to others

We want to inform, amuse, and help the people in our lives, and that’s why 94% of people say they share on social media, according to The New York Times.

2. To define ourselves to others

We all have our own personal brand, and the content that we share on social media reflects our identities. So it’s no surprise that 68% of people say they share on social media to communicate who they are and what they care about.

3. To grow and nourish our relationships

People also share as a means to make and maintain connections. Specifically, the New York Times’ research revealed that 73% of people share online to meet others with shared interests and 78% share because it enables them to communicate with people they otherwise wouldn’t stay in touch with.

4. To fulfill ourselves

Quite simply, we share because we enjoy it and it helps us feel more connected to the world.

5. To get the word out about causes or brands

We also share content online to show support for causes and inform people about the ideas and principles we believe in.

Who’s Involved in Social Media Sharing

The New York Times’ research further broke down the personas of people who share content on social media into six profiles:

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

young people using iphones

These findings are remarkably similar to Dichter’s, and they 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, to spread the word about causes or brands, touches on another major reason why we share: emotion.

The Role Emotion Plays in Social Media Sharing

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.”

Berger’s research focuses on six principles that cause something to be widely 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 7,000 articles on The New York Times, Berger and his colleague discovered there were two primary factors that contribute to an article becoming one of the newspaper’s most emailed: 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.

Joe Matsushima, co-founder of Denizen Company and brain behind the viral hit, Tiny Hamster Eats Tiny Burritos, has created videos that 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.

“Social media Sharing is a fascinating phenomenon because liking — or even loving — something doesn’t necessarily lead to sharing it with your peers,” he said. “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.”

Matsushima has made a career out 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 nineties-related content and quizzes about TV shows that have long been off the air. But the publication balance these posts 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 can cause people to share just as much as a funny video, so it’s not surprising that a study found that anger is the most viral emotion.

Stories like a waitress being left a $0 tip set off a firestorm of social media sharing.

Emotion is a huge part of social media 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.

Social Media Sharing and What It 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 that they have to click “share.”

And if you want employees to start sharing on social more — and improving engagement, increasing sales, and helping recruiting in the process — you need an employee advocacy solution like EveryoneSocial.

Book a free demo today and get on the way to increasing those shares.


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