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Raise That Pulse, Share That Link

What prompts people to share information? New research suggests catalysts can include anxiety, amusement — or even a brisk walk.
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Do me a favor. Before reading this article, would you mind jogging around the block?

Not a practical suggestion at this particular moment? No problem. It’s just that, had you taken a minute or so to get your heart rate up, you’d be more likely to forward this article to a friend, or mention it to a colleague at the water cooler.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Berger has been doing some fascinating research on precisely what inspires people to share information. Last year, he and a colleague looked at which New York Times articles are most emailed; they found stories that inspired either awe or anxiety led the list.

His latest paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, gets at a core principle that underlies these previous findings. It provides evidence that people are more prone to sharing interesting content if they are experiencing either physical or emotional arousal.

This stimulation needn’t be caused by the absorbing article, sad song or snarky sketch you choose to share. It’s enough that they occur in rapid succession. Your ex-spouse has nothing to do with this article, but if he or she unexpectedly walked by your desk a few seconds ago, you’d be more likely to pass along this information.

Berger describes two studies that provide evidence of this phenomenon. In the first, 93 students watched one of a series of film clips that, according to previous research, evoke specific emotions in viewers.

Some saw scenes designed to arouse big emotions (amusement or anxiety), while others viewed episodes that were meant to arouse less-intense feelings (contentment or sadness). Still others saw emotionally neutral clips. All then measured their level of stimulation on three scales: passive to active, mellow to fired up and low energy to high energy.

Then, in what they were told was a separate experiment, the students were shown an article and a video, both of which were pre-tested to be emotionally neutral. They then rated how willing they would be to share each of them with family, friends and coworkers.

“Compared with participants induced to feel contentment or sadness (low arousal), participants induced to feel amusement or anxiety (high arousal) were more willing to share content with other people,” Berger writes.

The second study also consisted of two purportedly unrelated experiments. In the first, 40 students “either sat still or jogged lightly in place for 60 seconds — a task shown to boost general arousal,” Berger writes. After a short interlude, they then “read a neutral online news article that they could email to anyone they wanted.

“Arousal again boosted sharing of information,” he reports. “Compared with sitting still, running in place increased the percentage of people who emailed the article from 33 to 75 percent.”

That substantial boost will be of great interest to professionals whose livelihoods depend upon people sharing information, including marketers, advertisers and, ahem, journalists. Officials hoping to educate citizens about important new findings should also take note. “Public health information, for example, might spread more effectively if it evokes anxiety rather than sadness,” Berger writes.

The potency of anxiety-producing imagery has, of course, long been known to political consultants and television news directors. But this research suggests other approaches to spreading the word could be equally effective. How about electronic messages on treadmills? Or banner ads on comedy-oriented websites?

Berger’s work confirms that fear can indeed be contagious. But it also suggests amusement — or any strong physical or emotional stimulation — can similarly stimulate sharing. Tell a friend. Or if you don’t feel like it, go for a run. It may change your mind.

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