Haunting Truths About Why People Share Content

Michael Purdy


October 29, 2012 (Updated: May 4, 2023)


Socializing is central to the human experience, so it’s no surprise that people share with one another. It’s a thrill to know that a friend or acquaintance ‘likes’ your thoughts or a meme shared by you online: people thrive on this sort of validation. According to Ernest Dichter’s 1966 Harvard study on how people share (via word of mouth), more than 24% of sharing is the result of self-involvement.

Via Ignite Social Media

A more recent Harvard study concerning Internet sharing, by Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell, revealed that 80% of social shares and posts are about oneself, and the remaining 20% are closely related to self-promotion. They found that sharing about oneself is closely related to mesolimbic dopamine system activity, which is similar to what’s experienced during sexual approval or while receiving monetary rewards. Yet, there are several sub-reasons why people share; here are some of the most common ones.

Amazing Product

 Via Daily News

When a product is surprising or fulfilling, people feel a pull to share it and promote it. As many as 49% of people will share because they feel invested in a product, and hope to change the opinions of others or to encourage action from friends.


Via Wikimedia

Sharing a thing online before a friend is able to share it makes a person feel smarter, more informed, and cooler. As can be deduced from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (above), people often seek the respect of others. It’s no surprise then that people seek out elusive social aggregate sites to be the first to know about new memes, news, or happenings.


Via AutoRevo

According to an MIT Sloan Management Review article, “How Reputation Affects Knowledge Sharing Among Colleagues,” coworkers choose whom to share information with based upon reputation. This holds true for social sites, where people can play social poker for stature. It is common in competitive cultures, the MIT study found, for people to share or withhold information in order to make themselves the reputed expert on a given topic.


 Via DeviantArt

People enjoy sharing in order to tell colleagues and friends something about themselves subtly, without begging for attention. People share information such as “Vote Obama” in order to tell others that they will vote Democrat, not to tell their friends to do so. As many as 68% of people share in order to give friends and acquaintances a better sense of themselves, what they care about, and what they do.

Being Useful

Tweet Count by Minute of New York Times Articles

Via New York Times

Sharing information because someone specific needs it, or someone or a group should avoid it, is a common motivator. This is a major reason why the New York Times is tweeted every four seconds: people want to get the word out. 94% of people carefully consider how the information they share will be used by the recipient before aimlessly tweeting or clicking ‘share.’

John Tuerney and a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania studied the most densely tweeted information and found that people prefer to share long, positive articles that are intellectually challenging and engaging, especially if they inspire awe or evoke strong emotions. Tuerney stated that people enjoy being useful because it impresses their friends.

Kony Effect

 Via Guardian

The Kony share is usually inspired by very strong emotions that the user believes are selfless.  Unlike the ‘being useful’ motivator, this one isn’t meant to be productive, but rather to enlighten friends. As many as 73% of respondents said that they process information more deeply and thoughtfully when they share it with others. 84% said they share emotional pieces because it is a way to support causes and issues that inspire them without doing too much.

The People Sharing Content

According to the New York Times’ survey of 2,500 sharers, there are six types of people sharing content:

    1. Altruists

Frequently female, the altruist wants to help others and support causes. They like email and Facebook.

    1. Careerists

Professionals with good networks, these people share serious information. Their key motivators are recognition and connectedness. These people can be found on LinkedIn.

    1. Hipsters

Often young and male, these people start the conversation and promote themselves by sharing. The hipsters are found on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Google+.

    1. Boomerangs

Thriving on debates, these people might be called flip-floppers for changing sides just to spur on the conversation. They use diverse platforms, but are often on Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon, and message boards (as well as heckling bloggers).

    1. Connectors

Mostly female, connectors travel in packs and keep to their real life friends. They use email and Facebook in order to stay connected.

    1. Selectives

Older people who are more traditional are called selectives. They share with those who share their values and are motivated by altruism. Selectives often stick to email.

Motivators for Sharing

 Via The Engaging Brand

According to the New York Times’ survey of 2,500 sharers, there are five motivators for sharing content:

      1. Altruism

They want to help friends out by sharing valuable, entertaining content.

      1. Self-Definition

These people shape online personas for themselves, carefully defining self with content.

      1. Empathy

They share to prove they’re thinking about each other, and to strengthen bonds.

      1. Connectedness

They share to be considered a thoughtful sharer, and to enrich experiences with one another.

      1. Evangelism

People share to help causes, to spread the word about issues, and to support ideas.


There are many reasons that people share content with one another. While this article covers some of the most popularly accepted ‘reasons’ for sharing, social behaviors change as rapidly as the sites they’re formed on, so sharing is a moving target for social psychologists and researchers.


    1. http://www.ignitesocialmedia.com/social-media-promotion/why-people-share-content/
    2. http://nytmarketing.whsites.net/mediakit/pos/
    3. http://socialcommercetoday.com/why-people-share-its-the-mesolimbic-dopamine-system-stupid-and-its-worth-0-63/
    4. http://socialmediatoday.com/cory-howell/353846/why-do-people-share-online
    5. http://sixrevisions.com/content-strategy/viral-content-why-we-share-some-things-and-not-others/
    6. http://www.thecontenteconomy.com/2012/09/why-do-people-share.html
    7. http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/media-lab/social-media/139716/5-reasons-people-share-news-how-you-can-get-them-to-share-yours/
    8. http://www.theengagingbrand.com/2012/10/5-reasons-why-people-share-social-media-content.html
    9. http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/06/secrets_of_social_media_reveal.html
    10. http://wjh.harvard.edu/~dtamir/Tamir-PNAS-2012.pdf
    11. http://open.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/how-often-is-the-times-tweeted/
    12. http://www.aiim.org/community/blogs/expert/Understanding-the-psychology-of-sharing-e28093-what-makes-it-tick
    13. http://www.forbes.com/2010/04/23/randd-research-sharing-cooperation-leadership-managing-mitsloan.html

Author Image - Michael Purdy
Michael Purdy

CopyPress writer

More from the author:

Read More About Content Creation