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Why do articles go viral? It’s about your sense of self | The World Weekly

Gone viral” is one of the defining terms of the Internet era. An image, video, article or comment can spread across the web like a virulent pathogen. But what makes some items so popular? A team at Pennsylvania University’s Annenberg School for Communication reckons that our brainwaves hold the answer. 

Two new research papers from Christin Scholz and Elisa Baek, both PhD candidates, have for the first time documented the specific brain activity that leads people to read or share articles. Using health stories in the New York Times (NYT), they studied the brain activity of 80 participants and looked for consistent patterns. From their findings they were able to predict the virality (or sharing success) of the chosen articles among real NYT readers outside of the study.

The scientists used a functional MRI machine to measure participants’ brain activity as they read headlines and rated how likely they were to read and share them. The study found that the part of the brain that recognises the self, and also the part that imagines what others might think, unconsciously worked together to produce a signal. The demographic was narrow (18-24-year olds living in the Philadelphia area) but their signals helped predict the global popularity of the NYT articles.

Emily Falk, the senior author on both papers, explained: “When you're thinking about what to read yourself and about what to share, both are inherently social, and when you're thinking socially, you're often thinking about yourself and your relationships to others... [people] share things [to] make them look smart or empathic or cast them in a positive light”.

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