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July 9, 2013

Study Discovers Key to Taking Social Media Posts Viral

Activating Section of Human Brain Has a 'Salesperson Effect'

There is a secret to taking social media posts viral, a new study has revealed.

The key, UCLA scientists say, is to tap into the temporoparietal junction, or TPJ, region of people’s brains.

When marketers are successful at tapping into the TPJ of consumers’ brains it results in a “salesperson effect” — in other words the desire to share information with others, according to a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science.

“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,” said the study’s senior author, Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences.

Matthew Lieberman

Matthew Lieberman

Emily Falk

Emily Falk

“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.”

As part of the study, UCLA students underwent MRI scans while performing one of two tasks, either acting as a television studio intern or as a producer. The interns were given information about 24 potential television pilot ideas and were asked to pitch the best pilot ideas to the “producers” via video. The producers were asked to watch the videos to determine which pilots sounded the most promising.

The psychologists discovered the interns who were most successful at persuading the producers showed “significantly more activation” in the TPJ region of the brain when they were first exposed to the pilot ideas they later recommended. In fact, these “interns” had more activation in the TPJ region than the interns who were less convincing and more activation than they themselves had when they heard pilot ideas they didn’t like.

Lead author Emily Falk said increased activity in the TPJ was connected to “an increased ability to convince others to get on board with their favorite 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,” she said. “Thinking about what appeals to others may be even more important.”


The TPJ is part of the brain’s “mentalizing network,” which is caught up in thinking about what other people think and feel.

Lieberman said good ideas activate the mentalizing network.

“They make us want to tell other people,” he said.

Lieberman and Falk said more intensive study of these regions of the brain could eventually enable psychologists to predict which advertisements are most likely to go viral.

Learning more about the TPJ could benefit future public health campaigns to combat smoking and obesity, they said.

“What is new about our study is the finding that the mentalizing network is involved when I read something and decide who else might be interested in it,” Lieberman said. “This is similar to what an advertiser has to do. It’s not enough to have a product that people should like.”