Ideas that spread

Why do some things get picked up and become viral, causing a buzz? What prompts a person to tell others about what they have heard?

ScienceDaily reports on a paper by Falk, Morelli, Welborn, Dambacher, Lieberman, entitled Creating Buzz: The Neural Correlates of Effective Message Propagation, in Psychological Science. The researchers look at scans of people ‘deciding’ whether an idea should be passed on.

Lieberman said, “Our study suggests that people are regularly attuned to how the things they’re seeing will be useful and interesting, not just to themselves but to other people. We always seem to be on the lookout for who else will find this helpful, amusing or interesting, and our brain data are showing evidence of that. At the first encounter with information, people are already using the brain network involved in thinking about how this can be interesting to other people. We’re wired to want to share information with other people. I think that is a profound statement about the social nature of our minds….We’re constantly being exposed to information on Facebook, Twitter and so on. Some of it we pass on, and a lot of it we don’t. Is there something that happens in the moment we first see it — maybe before we even realize we might pass it on — that is different for those things that we will pass on successfully versus those that we won’t?”

The temporoparietal junction was the only part of the brain that predicted a subject’s likelihood of passing an idea. The TPJ is part of the ‘mentalizing network’ along with the dorsomedial preforntal cortex.

When we read fiction or watch a movie, we’re entering the minds of the characters — that’s mentalizing. As soon as you hear a good joke, you think, ‘Who can I tell this to and who can’t I tell?’ Making this judgment will activate these two brain regions. If we’re playing poker and I’m trying to figure out if you’re bluffing, that’s going to invoke this network. And when I see someone on Capitol Hill testifying and I’m thinking whether they are lying or telling the truth, that’s going to invoke these two brain regions.”, Lieberman said. So when we find that an idea would be interesting to others – we are motivated to pass it on. It’s a very social thing to do.

Here is the abstract:

Social interaction promotes the spread of values, attitudes, and behaviors. Here, we report on neural responses to ideas that are destined to spread. We scanned message communicators using functional MRI during their initial exposure to the to-be-communicated ideas. These message communicators then had the opportunity to spread the messages and their corresponding subjective evaluations to message recipients outside the scanner. Successful ideas were associated with neural responses in the communicators’ mentalizing systems and reward systems when they first heard the messages, prior to spreading them. Similarly, individuals more able to spread their own views to others produced greater mentalizing-system activity during initial encoding. Unlike prior social-influence studies that focused on the individuals being influenced, this investigation focused on the brains of influencers. Successful social influence is reliably associated with an influencer-to-be’s state of mind when first encoding ideas.

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