Why do we share (health) news with others?

Published on November 2, 2023 – In a new PNAS article, Hang-Yee Chan, Christin Scholz and their co-authors studied why people share news online. Brain scans from Dutch and US American participants provided physiological confirmation for prior theorizing about psychological mechanisms of sharing and robustly predicted large-scale sharing of New York Times articles online. In contrast, self-reports proved only reliable when gathered from Americans for US news.

The process of sharing information online holds immense significance for health communication efforts, influencing the spread and reception of vital information. A recent study, including researchers Hang-Yee Chan and Christin Scholz from the Amsterdam Center for Health Communication, delves into the psychological drivers behind why individuals share news articles, particularly concerning health and environmental topics, via online platforms.

In a previous study conducted in 2017, researchers found that brain scans of approximately 40 individuals exposed to headlines and abstracts of New York Times articles could predict how frequently these articles would be shared by the broader online readership of the publication. This study revealed two critical implications: first, brain scans can capture fundamental responses to news items, enabling accurate predictions of widespread behaviors from small samples, and second, it led to the development of a psychological theory of sharing, known as the value-based model of sharing. This model suggests that sharing decisions are based on the sharer’s assessment of the value and rewards derived from sharing. In turn, sources of this value perception are the self- and social relevance of the to-be-shared content.

In their recently published study, the researchers replicated and extended their 2017 findings, using a fresh set of New York Times articles related to health and the environment. They also engaged participants from two countries, the Netherlands and the USA. The results confirmed the earlier findings, showcasing the robustness of neural prediction models in anticipating sharing behaviors across contexts and cultures. Interestingly, while brain scans from both Dutch and American participants effectively predicted the popularity of articles from a US newspaper, self-reports proved insightful only when gathered from Americans. In other words, neural signals capture basic impactful responses that are common across people and cultures.

This research highlights the replicability and generalizability of the value-based model of sharing, providing a sturdy foundation for constructing theories and interventions. Specifically, interventions that guide potential sharers in utilizing content to portray positive characteristics about themselves or to foster positive connections with others may lead to increased sharing activity.

Access the full article here.