Sharing fast and slow: the psychology behind the news we share on social media

What drives sharing? According to researcher Sonya Song, it is a mixture of attention, emotion, and reaction. Below are some data and findings on which news stories took off and which didn’t. 

Sharing on social media is:

1. charged with emotion

2. bounded by self-image management, and

3. by concerns over relationships with others

The research takes some inspiration from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which examines two modes of thinking: fast (system 1) and slow (system 2). Fast thinking is essentially a measure of unconscious attention, the lizard brain essential for survival – turning our heads to loud noises, or withdrawing our fingers from fire before conscious realisation. Slow thinking is the rational thinking that evolved much later, handling learned skills such as reasoning and mathematics. 

Browsing through posts on social media usually puts us in a state of cognitive ease, and also a state of high susceptibility to advertisers/news outlets methods of getting attention: repetition and clarity. Large pictures and uppercase text fall into easy legibility, which then catch our attention more frequently. 


The general pattern is that illustrating a post with an image is associated with higher traffic compared to no image, so is a large image compared to a thumbnail. This pattern holds across three key metrics (reach – number of unique people who have seen your post; engagement – number of unique people who have clicked on your post; and conversation – number of unique people who have created a story from the post, by either liking, commenting, sharing, answering your posts.) by Facebook. In addition, mere “BREAKING” is associated with a higher reach, although not with engagement or talking about this (Figure 2). In fact, not only BREAKING NEWS but also other uppercase words are associated with a higher reach, including WEATHER WATCH, MAJOR UPDATE, BIG PICTURE, NOW LIVE, etc.


As expected, number of average syllables per word was negatively correlated with all three metrics, namely “reach”, “engaged users”, and “talking about this”. The implication for social media editors is to prepare messages that cater to fast reading, because people are often guided by System 1 on social media, even though audiences of various media outlets name readable language at different levels. 

Other ways of priming, such as posing a question in the story/post, also resulted in a higher rate of conversation. 

Based on a sample collected within two weeks, the posts with a question is associated with 80% more comments.

On the other hand, to engage more sophisticated readers with thoughtful responses, one can turn to using more words and words with more syllables. More complex text is, in turn, correlated with more comments (though not likes or shares). 

Unsurprising results on readability.

Unsurprising results on readability.

Pretty straightforward so far. The more interesting bit came in the research in outliers – what stories generated the most and the least activity, and why?

Most conversational stories

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant today pledged $1 million to recovery efforts after yesterday’s devastatingtornado.
  2. Romeo and Juliet, the swans who reside at the Boston Public Garden during the summer (and at Franklin Park Zoo during the winter), returned there today in a sign that the spring season is truly here. See photos:
  3. The lilacs are in full bloom at Arnold Arboretum. This photo was taken yesterday, known officially as Lilac Sunday at the Arboretum. Stop by if you have a chance. Globe staff photo / Yoon S. Byun
  4. Say hello to the CapeFlyer. It had its inaugural run today and is scheduled to have its official debut next weekend, the first time in about 25 years service from Boston to Cape Cod will be offered. Would you ride it?
  5. The Marathon bombingsheared off the right leg of Marc Fucarile (pictured, with his fiancee Jen Regan) in a millisecond. It spared the left, but not by much. Now, he and his family are in a painful waiting game to see if his “good” legcan be saved.
  6. child was pulled from the rubble of Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., after an EF-4 tornado struck. The tornado, with winds up to 200 mph, was up to a mile wide and left behind large areas of devastation.

Least conversational stories

  1. Keith Reddin’s thriller “Almost Blue” at the Charlestown Working Theater, isn’t so much blue as noir
  2. #Recipe for paella-stuffed peppers
  3. New: Matthew Gilbert’s Buzzsaw column. As the cult favorite, “Arrested Development,” returns with a season-sized “episode dump,” Globe critic Matthew Gilbert asks, does giving viewers too much leave them with nothing to talk about?
  4. Make mom feel even more special with these stylish Mother’s Day gifts.
  5. The Phoenix Suns named 33-year-old Ryan McDonough, formerly of the Boston Celtics, as their new general manager.
  6. Album review: The soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” curated by Jay-Z, is a fantastical reimagining of that era, putting ’20s jazz in the modern context of pop and hip-hop. Oddly enough, the one thing the soundtrack is missing is heart.
  7. Creative restlessness and a sense of adventure are at the heart of Iron & Wine’s latest album, “Ghost on Ghost,” which Sam Beam will celebrate with a show at Berklee Performance Center tonight.
  8. Book review: The beloved author of “The Kite Runner,” Khaled Hosseini, returns to the rugged landscape of his home country, Afghanistan with “And the Mountains Echoed.”

Here is my quick summary of patterns related to conversational potential of stories.

  • Beautiful and pleasant stuff was the most conversational, such as photo slides.
  • Also highly conversational: There’s a problem, but there has been (or would be) a solution:
    • Tie, but broken by miracle win in sports
    • Failed to finish marathon, but were invited back to do it
    • Marathon bombing victims, but were given medical care
    • Natural disaster, but children were saved


By contrast, the other eight top conversational stories don’t feature beautiful photos at all. Instead, they first present a problem (tied-game, tornado, cancer, disconnection, etc.) and then provide a solution or a triumph. This pattern I name as tension-relief, which is combined by a turning point.

Song went on to parse the differences behind the urge to share versus to comment on a story. The findings are similar to those from Jonah Berger, who found high-arousal emotions associated with more email shares.

More shares than comments

  1. You stayed classy, Chicago: The Blackhawks took out a full-page Boston Globe ad today to send along thanks and praise to the Bruins and the people of Boston.
  2. San Francisco City Hall was all lit up with the colors of therainbow flag last night following the Supreme Court’s decision that cleared the way for gay marriages to resume in California following a bitter, five-year legal battle. Story: EPA photo
  3. This is possibly the best fireworks over Boston photo we’ve ever seen. Photo by Globe staff photographer Matthew J. Lee We hope everyone had a great Fourth of July! More photos of the celebration in Boston:

More comments than shares

  1. The latest cover of Rolling Stone magazine features a photo ofMarathon bombings suspect Dzhohkar Tsarnaev. Is this appropriate?
  2. Very sad news: Two-year-old Logan Stevenson of Western Pennsylvania died last night in his mother’s arms after serving as his parents’ best man at their wedding last weekend.
  3. This dead shark was found lying in front of the Sea Dog Brew Pub in Nantucket this morning.


Happy (gay marriage, Red Sox victory) and interesting (best fireworks, two-headed turtles) stories were shared more than commented.

By contrast, sad (death, loss) and contemptible (various suspects, sport scandal) stories were commented more than shared.

As diverse as these motivations are, people generally aim to maintain good social relations. Hence, such behavior should also be observed on Facebook, a hub of social connections, and its users should try to please others and avoid offending them. That means, if a post warns of severe weather, people are more likely to share it among social connections (information exchange). On the other hand, if a political or religious story will certainly upset some users’ parents, friends, or bosses, they will feel reluctant to throw it in their faces by sharing it. Or if it’s aligned with the belief of a social circle (sports triumphs, gay marriage, sense of justice), sharing is preferred.



People constantly switch between fast and slow thinking modes.

On social media, people are mostly guided by the fast mode.

To cater to the fast thinking mode, we should make better use of image and keep our language simple.

On the other hand, don’t hesitate to tell complicated stories, because they may engage people in slow thinking and result in receiving more feedback.

If you want to encourage a discussion, please ask questions.

If you want to make a story conversational, show a turning point with a tension and a relief, because a turning point attracts attention.

If you want to see more shares, consider infusing emotions into the stories; both positive (awe and amusement) and negative (anger and anxiety) emotions may work.

Besides emotions, smartness also works, because people try to present themselves in an ideal way. Show some good taste in science, health, and hip stories and they’ll have a better chance to be picked up.

If your stories aren’t widely shared but feverishly commented, it may be caused by the controversies in them, because people cherish social relations and avoid upsetting families, friends and colleagues by sharing offensive stories.

Straightforward enough, but as mentioned, this serves as a easy “nutrition facts label” that help newsrooms why some stories take off and others never do. 

(via Nieman Lab)


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