The Science & Psychology Of Social Media

Have you seen the photograph of Katherine Cathey, sleeping on the floor next to the casket of her husband, 2nd Lt. James Cathey? What about the video, The Fox? Chances are you have — each of these has received hundreds of millions of views.

Why? Well… that is the question, isn’t it? How do you create social media campaigns that will be shared over and over again — campaigns that have the chance to become viral?

The Science Of Sharing

It should come as no surprise that there is an actual science behind sharing in the world of social media. Some images are more likely to go viral than others.

At first blush, this appears to be a simple case of emotional imagery. Who doesn’t want to share the picture of 116-year-old Besse Cooper blowing out her candles or a really cute picture of a cat playing ball with a funny caption?

Meet The TPJ

Turns out there is more to the psychology of social media than pulling on the heart strings. In fact, by appealing to a specific part of the human brain, you have a better chance of creating a wildly popular campaign. Meet the TPJ, or Temporal Parietal Junction, the part of the brain that is activated when someone considers whether or not to share something.

The TPJ is located on both sides of the brain, just behind the ears. Its job is to effectively connect us with the beliefs and thoughts of others. It is a ruling force behind empathy.

Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles wanted to find out why we pass some information on, or share it, while leaving hundreds of other images and posts alone. What they discovered was that what really matters isn’t how visually appealing an image or idea is to the viewer, but how the viewer perceives others might enjoy the image or idea.  In other words, social media sharing has a lot to do with intuition and understanding.

“We wanted to explore what differentiates ideas that bomb from ideas that go viral,” [lead author, Emily] Falk said. “We found that increased activity in the TPJ was associated with an increased ability to convince others to get on board with their favorite ideas. Nobody had looked before at which brain regions are associated with the successful spread of ideas. You might expect people to be most enthusiastic and opinionated about ideas that they themselves are excited about, but our research suggests that’s not the whole story. Thinking about what appeals to others may be even more important.”
Let’s break it down into simpler terms. You open up your Facebook account and see ten friends have shared images with you. Some you look at and forget, while others give you an almost immediate need to share. That feeling is your TPJ going into overdrive.

Social Proof

We live in a “me, too” society. No one wants to be the first person. Think about summer camp, that first jump in the lake. Likely, it took two or three brave souls to make the leap first, and suddenly, every camper was jumping in. The same principle — the principle of social proof — holds true for social media marketing. People are more likely to share images or content if they were shared with them by someone they believe in or trust.

The social proof theory was recently put to the test, when a U.S. based company launched a new marketing campaign for their product, not so delicately called Poo-Pourri. The campaign, “Girls Don’t Poop,” has over 21 million views on YouTube. The company presented a video about bathroom deodorizers — a product with a word that, frankly, turns some people off — and still it was shared over and over again. Why?

  1. Simply put, the video was funny
  2. The brand ambassador, a cheeky Scotswoman, delivers a stellar performance
  3. There is nothing overtly over-the-line; it could even be shared with co-workers during work hours.

In other words, in spite of the name and the subject matter, it was easy for viewers to watch the advertisement and share it with their own network. All it took was individuals sharing the video with those that trust them — indicating that, despite the title, it was a video worth watching — and social proof was well underway.

Gestalt Laws

According to Gestalt, a German philosopher, human behavior cannot be fully understood just by looking at the component parts of their behavior; instead, you must look at the whole. While that sounds like a lot of psycho-babble, the principle itself applies to social media marketing in the following ways:

  • Law of Pragnanz. The human brain loves simplicity. Simple patterns, simple order, simple ideas. Even better, we process these simple concepts faster. In marketing terms, simple is often more effective. A great example is the logo from the Olympics. The human brain process that image as nothing more than a series of circles, rather than one complex image.
  • Law of Continuity. We respond well to things that visually align. When creating visual elements of a social media post or campaign, align elements linearly for a bigger impact. Consider two crossed lines. The human brain sees these lines as just that — two lines which cross each other. It doesn’t see two angles.
  • Law of Similarity. Items that are similar (similar colors, shapes or sizes) are perceived as a group. Use this law to help create relationships or groups in marketing materials. For example, when creating a pie-chart for an infographic, using colors to group similar items together within the chart itself will make it easier to understand.

Science, Meet Social Media

With a better understanding of the psychology behind sharing, as well as some of the larger social platforms, we can consider how to change our social media strategy to create sharable campaigns. Marketing strategies that are more likely to be shared can effectively increase your visibility and, in turn, your conversion rates.

Get Them To Commit

Remember the TPJ — it gets activated before the viewer can think about whether or not to share. Take the time to understand your demographic — what appeals to them, what their motivations are. Look beyond age, sex and race to the core of your demographic because they are only going to share things they believe their friends or family will enjoy.

Build Trust

We know that people are more likely to accept information or ideas from a person or group that they trust, and social media efforts must reflect that. Spend some time building up a trust bank with your core client base. Admit a mistake or share a customer complaint and resolution with your Facebook page. Remember, if they trust you, they will share.


Finally, remember Gestalt laws and apply them to your designs. With the growing popularity of infographics, visual design has never been more important. Simple images that are consistent are more likely to be shared.


Remember, social media isn’t really about technology, but psychology and science. Understanding your viewers and how their minds work is critically important for increased engagement. Consider that each user on a social media site has a predetermined amount of “social capital,” or effective sway in their own network. The key is getting them to spend that capital on you by sharing, liking, commenting, recommending and, ultimately, buying your product or service. Social psychology makes this possible.

If you enjoyed this then you may also enjoy the following in Search Engine Land:

Here’s a link to the abstract of the TPJ study mentioned in this article:

 (Stock image via Used under license.)

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social Media Marketing | Social Media Marketing Column


About The Author: is the Senior SEO Manager for the agency, Red Door Interactive.

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  • Clayburn Griffin

    It’s always the brain’s fault.

  • Graumpot

    Excellent post Jordan. Really fascinating read, I think it’s really important to understand the neuropsychology behind decision making to improve marketing.

  • TheMarketingPeople

    A really fascinating read Jordan, as Graumpot said it’s important to take the psychology and science behind why people share things into account to try and increase your reach.

  • James Coakes

    Social media sharing has become a way in which people build their personal identity online. Often that’s an idealised self image. Put simply one of the main motivations for sharing is to make yourself look good; more interesting personally or more in tune professionally. I’m not sure that science can cover this.

  • Jordan Kasteler

    Thank you!

  • Jordan Kasteler

    Thanks! Glad you liked it :)

  • John Brown

    Social media marketers should put all these in their brain. I am sure this post will act as a complete guide to improve your social media presence.


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