Internet, News Media, Social Media

Arousal increases social transmission of information

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Last updated: August 5, 2011

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The urge to share a news article or gossip might seem an almost random phenomenon, highly contingent on the chance encounter with a juicy information tidbit. Social scientists who have traditionally studied how and why people pass along information to others, however, have noted that the urge may be more pronounced during times of crisis or conflict. But this doesn’t always explain why information goes viral in the context of happier situations, for example.

A 2011 study by the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, published in Psychological Science, “Arousal Increases Social Transmission of Information,” uses experimental studies to establish whether or not certain physical or emotional states might make people more likely to share personal and public news. To prompt “arousal,” subjects performed physical exercise or were exposed to emotion-inducing media.

The study’s findings include:

  • In a two-part experiment involving 93 people, those who were shown videos that stirred emotions of anxiety or amusement (high arousal) were more willing to share information they later encountered than those subjects who were shown videos prior that evoked feelings of contentment or sadness (low arousal.)
  • In a two-part experiment involving 40 people, those who jogged in place and were then shown a news article were 42% more likely to email the article to someone they knew than those who had been sitting in place prior.
  • The phenomenon of increased information sharing does not seem to be contingent on the positive or negative qualities of a situation: “Situations that heighten arousal should boost social transmission, regardless of whether they are positive (e.g., inaugurations) or negative (e.g., panics) in nature.”

The researcher concludes that the findings “suggest that arousal-inducing content should be shared more than content that does not induce arousal. Public-health information, for example, might spread more effectively if it evokes anxiety rather than sadness. More broadly, the findings suggest how psychological processes might shape collective outcomes (i.e., culture): More arousing content should be more likely to spread quickly on the Internet and should be more likely to capture public attention.”

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Writer: | August 5, 2011

Analysis assignments

Read the Psychological Science study "Arousal Increases Social Transmission of Information."

  1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
  2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
  3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

Read the issue-related Miller-McCune article "Misinformation Is as Close as Your Inbox."

  1. Use insights from the study and the article to analyze a viral information phenomenon around a specific event online. Write a blog or news analysis piece that sheds light on underlying factors that may have contributed to accelerated information sharing.

Newswriting assignments

  1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
  4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.

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