Image: Allan Ajifo Image: Allan Ajifo

A study comparing the results of neuroimaging may reveal the secret behind why some articles go viral.

Sometimes an article, or indeed a status on a social media channel, just goes mad. It's as if every man, women and their dogs want to tell everyone else about it. But predicting when this is going to happen, or even understanding why, is a lot more difficult.
If only we could somehow bottle it, enclose the secret in a bottle for us to sip at every time we are anxious to get our message across to the odd million people.

There is a theory, it was advanced by Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the University in his book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On" published three or so years ago. The theory is that we like to share articles if by doing so we feel it promotes an image of ourselves that we like to promote or that it elicits an emotional response from us.

Now a study advanced by researchers from the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, has looked into the idea in a lot more depth.

It tests two groups of people, asking them to read certain articles from The New York Tines, asking them to indicate which articles they were more likely to share.

But, it also ran MRI scans looking for evidence that parts of the brain associated with value, self, and social cognitions are more active reading articles that are more likely to go viral.

The conclusion: "In both studies, activity in neural regions associated with self-related and social cognition was indirectly related to population-level sharing through increased neural activation in the brain's value system."

Maybe that is a neat conclusion, but it is kind of telling us what we already expected.

But the study also found that: "Neural activity further predicted population-level outcomes over and above the variance explained by article characteristics and commonly used self-report measures of sharing intentions."

In other words, the MRI scans were a more reliable predictor of what articles may go viral than simply studying the articles examining them against certain criteria.

The study does not provide definitive proof. For one thing, each of the two groups tested were small: 41 and 39 people.

For another thing, it compared results of the scans against what people said they were more likely to share, it did not look at articles that really were shared.

In any case, setting up MRI equipment is not so easy, it's not like you can nip down to the local supermarket to get the appropriate hardware; you may be better off finding a group of people and just asking them.

But it's a beginning. We may not yet have the means to put the secret of creating viral messages in a bottle, but maybe we can at least be better at fermenting our ideas.

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