The Physiology of (Over-)Sharing

New research indicates that we pass on information mainly for emotional, not rational, reasons

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At the height of the Anthony Weiner scandal, there was much speculation as to why he shared photos of himself in the locker room. A new Psychological Science study suggests one unexpected hypothesis: Weiner tweeted because he had just worked out.

Several researchers have shown that heightened emotions drive people to share information. This recent study by Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger suggests, however, that what truly matters is how physically or emotionally stimulated people are when they process the information, not its emotional content. The findings build on Berger's 2009 study in which he found that articles that evoke strong emotional responses, such as awe, anger, or anxiety, were more likely to populate The New York Times most-emailed list.

"Companies, organizations, and individuals all want people to share their content," Berger says, "but they need to understand why people talk or share certain things to make this happen."

In his latest study, Berger measured how various emotional and physical stimuli designed to activate the autonomic nervous system affected the likelihood that subjects would share emotion-free news articles. In one experiment, he primed 93 respondents with pre-tested video clips to produce emotional states associated with high arousal (anxiety, amusement) and low arousal (sadness, contentment). Then, in what participants were told was an unrelated trial, Berger presented the respondents with neutral articles and videos, and asked them to rate how inclined they were to share these news items with friends, family members, and coworkers. The result: "Situations that heighten arousal boost social transmission," Berger concludes.

Interestingly, physical stimulation encourages content distribution as well. In a second experiment, Berger asked 40 participants to either jog in place for a minute, a task previously shown to cause physiological arousal, or sit still. When they were presented with a neutral article soon after and given the option to email it, 75 percent of those who just jogged agreed to share it, while only a third of those who weren't physically aroused did.

"Whether or not we pass something on may have rather less to do with our careful evaluation of the quality or worth of a piece of information than we think," University of Exeter social psychologist Kim Peters says of the findings. "What we share may have as much to do with the stimulation provided by the environment as with the information itself."

Bernard Rimé, a psychology professor at Belgium's University of Louvain, agrees and points to the larger implications of people's inherent propensity to share their emotions, a subject his research group has looked into for two decades. In a previous study that Berger's work inadvertently adds to, Rimé found that people share or talk about an emotional experience with members of their social network 80 to 95 percent of the time.

"Emotional feelings have predominantly been considered as the core of the person's private experience," Rimé says. "With Berger's new study, we now face overabundant evidence showing that, as soon as an emotion is felt, social behavior develops and social communication flourishes."

Why arousal of any kind stimulates news sharing, though, is another question. Social cognition expert Mark Schaller of Canada's University of British Columbia suspects that arousal may have a "disinhibitory effect" that results in greater sharing. "Perhaps there is a natural tendency to share information, and the social inhibitions that get in the way are reduced under conditions of arousal," he suggests, noting that alternate explanations should be considered.

Still, the applications of Berger's findings are diverse. Anyone hoping to get their message across may tweet around noon when people try to eke out a workout or walk outside for lunch. Marketers could place ads during the latter half of a program's run when the most dramatic moments tend to unfold. And, of course, for certain over-stimulated gym buffs, this study could serve as a warning—keep your phone tucked away when you work out.

Image: Brendan McDermid/Reuters