The psychology of sharing and social media: 3 things you need to know


By Nathalie Nahai, The Web Psychologist.

Read her best-selling book, Webs Of Influence, here. 

This post originally appeared on


Hidden drivers

There are many different, psychological drivers behind online sharing.

Whether you want to impress your peers, gain new followers or drive traffic to your website, the subconscious principles that govern the way we share can also be used consciously to help you create more contagious content.

Here are three of the most effective principles at play:


1. Social validation

Social validation refers to our desire to develop ‘meaningful social relationships, and retain a favourable self-concept’ [1].

As a social species, we are psychologically driven to strengthen our friendships and do things that make us feel good about ourselves. This is one of the key (albeit subconscious) reasons why videos such as Grumpy Cat, Psy’s Gangnam Style and most recently the Harlem Shake, go viral.

They make us laugh, and we share them in the belief that they’ll make our friends laugh too, strengthening our social ties in the process.

Action tip: If you want your content to get shared, create content that will make enrich your target group’s relationships and self-concept. At a fundamental level, you can do this by creating something shocking, funny or novel, bringing us neatly to the second point.


2.  Novelty

Contrary to the popular belief that similarity breeds connection [2], when it comes to online sharing it turns out that there are often other forces at work.

In a huge study looking at content sharing on Facebook [3], researchers found something they didn’t expect – that your weakest ties are often the most influential. So much so, that you’re actually ten times more likely to share a link that a weak connection has posted, than if a close friend had posted it.

Why? Because that information is more likely to be novel. This effect is so pronounced that your ‘weak ties are collectively responsible for the majority of information spread’ [4].

Action tip: To make the most of this principle, all you need to do is look at the content that is being shared in your target group and classify each into one of two buckets: ‘normal’ or ‘novel’. Once you’ve established the key themes or elements that make up the content in each bucket, you can use your findings to create, source and share content that will fall into the ‘novel’ category and therefor be more likely to be shared.


3. Emotional arousal

Whether you’re an expert or not, it should come as no surprise that the kind of content that goes viral does so because it pushes our emotional buttons.

But it’s not just feel-good content that benefits from this principle. In fact, recent research has shown that content that induces high-arousal states – whether they’re positive (joy and awe) or negative (anger and anxiety) – can be very effective at boosting social transmission online.

You need only look at the success such campaigns as BMW’s advert ‘The Hire – Ambush’ and Allstate’s ‘Mayhem’ series have enjoyed, to see this negative emotional arousal in action.

Action tip: If you’re crafting content from scratch, think about which high-arousing emotional state you want to induce in your viewers. Whether you want them to feel joyous or freaked out, if you build the right emotional triggers into your content’s narrative, its shareability will enjoy a dramatic boost.


[1] R. B. Cialdini and N. J. Goldstein (2004) ‘Social influence: Compliance and conformity’, Annual Review of Psychology, 55: 591–621. 

[2] M. McPherson, L. Smith-Lovin and J. M. Cook (2001) ‘Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks’, Annual Review of Sociology, 27: 415–44. 

[3] E. Bakshy (2012) ‘Rethinking information diversity in networks’, Facebook Data. Available online at: 

[4] N. Nahai (2012) ‘Webs Of Influence: The Psychology Of Online Persuasion’, Pearson.

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