Matthew D. Lieberman Ph.D.

Social Brain, Social Mind

The Neuroanatomy of a Retweet

How your brain helps you share ideas successfully

Posted Oct 09, 2013

Yesterday my new book, ‘Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect’ came out and naturally I was excited to share the news. I took to Twitter, Facebook, and even here to my Psychology Today blog. I set off a real firestorm producing countless retweets and a huge number of page views. You would think I’d be more excited, right? Oh, did I forget to mention that almost all of the retweets and page views had nothing to do with my book? Yeah, there’s that. In addition to the tweets about my book, the ones I was really focused on, I also happened to tweet something I saw that seemed kind of cute. Here is the tweet:

The first "scientist" was a woman. The word was invented to describe her. ‪

I thought this was cute because although Mary Somerville was by no means the first person doing science, someone recognized that it was a problem to include her as one of the “men of science” as they were typically described and so the word “scientist” was invented as a gender-neutral alternative in order to accurately describe her. If you had asked me to guess how many retweets it would get, I would have guessed 3-5 like most of my posts. But as of this posting it has been retweeted and re-retweeted hundreds of times. Looking back I can guess at why it was a successful post. In just a few words it was a bold pro-female message that resonated with the identities and perhaps frustrations of many women. Indeed, the vast majority of reposts are from women.

So pithy identity-relevant messages get reposts? Maybe, but I’ve seen lots of similar posts crash and burn. My most successful post of all time couldn’t have been less relevant to most people’s identities. Ready, here it is. (click on the link to see it in action)

How Keys Work Explained In One Perfect Animated GIF

Utter simplicity and again, looking backwards we can make some sense of it. A problem that is totally befuddling (“how do they pick locks like they show in the movies?”) becomes totally clear in a single glance at this animated GIF. So simplicity links the first two. But what about this?

The Flavor Connection

This one is dense, complex, and unrelated to identity, but it is also one of my top posts of all time. The point is, that while each of these makes sense in hindsight, none of them made perfect sense in foresight.

The Brain and Buzz 

For decades, people have invested serious time and money into predicting what will create buzz. Sadly, this has mostly been money down the drain. We simply don’t have a good idea what will make an idea go viral or not. There has probably been nothing more viral in the last 20 years than Psy’s instant classic Gangnam Style with almost 2 billion views on YouTube. Yet, I bet you’ve never seen his follow-up, Gentleman, with less than 1% of the viewcount of Gangnam Style. Psy made magic but had no idea how to repeat the trick.

Using fMRI, my collaborators (Emily Falk, Stephanie Vezich, & Ben Gunter) and I have hit upon the neural signature that predicts when an idea will (or won’t) go viral. We did this in two parts. In the first study, we asked people to get in an MRI scanner and see descriptions of potential new television shows. They were asked to imagine they were interns at TV station and had to advise their boss, the producer, on which shows were worth considering further. When they got out of the scanner they were asked to speak on video about each show idea as if they were talking to the producer. The video was then shown to other individuals playing the role of producer. These producers never saw the original show idea, only what the intern told them about each potential show. The producers were then asked which show ideas they would want to pass on to their boss for further consideration.

We looked at the brains of the interns when they were first seeing the television show ideas. Instead of focusing on what was more active in the brain when they saw a show they were personally excited about, we analyzed what brain activity in the interns was associated with the impact the interns’ retelling would have on the producers and the producers’ desire to pass the information on further. In other words, we were interested in what was happening in the interns’ brains when they were seeing something that they would pass on so successfully that the person who heard it from them would want to tell someone else.

The Mentalizing System

We saw a surprisingly coherent pattern of brain activity associated with ideas that were likely to build buzz. A network of brain regions that we call the mentalizing system was more active in these moments than others. We then confirmed this effect in a second study. This time we brought in new folks and while in the scanner had them watch promotional movie trailers for films coming out a few months later. After getting out of the scanner, we had each person log in to their Facebook account and navigate to pages we had made for each trailer so they could answer some questions about them. What we were really interested in, though is whether they ‘shared’, ‘liked’, or commented on any of the trailers so that their friends would see. We predicted that the more someone showed mentalizing system activity during a trailer, the more likely they would be to get on Facebook and let their friends know about it. Lo and behold, that is exactly what we found.

While we are just at the beginning of this line of research, I think we have a toehold on predicting when an idea is likely to go viral. We have never been able to predict this sort of thing in the past and I think there’s a real chance that we could use what we are learning to test different messages, say a set of tweets on the same subject, and know ahead of time which is most likely to generate buzz and be retweeted again and again.

So what does the mentalizing system do and why is it the network we see when an idea has a better shot of going viral? This is a network essential to living well in a social world. It allows us to peer into the minds of those around us and figure out their likely thoughts, feelings, and goals in nearly any situation. Any time you think about someone else’s minds, this network gets more involved. If you think about whether your boss is considering laying you off, its there. If you are playing poker and trying to figure out if your opponent is bluffing, its there. And if you are seeing an idea that you might pass on to others, its there. Great ideas don’t just make us think—they make us want to tell others and think about how best to tell others so that they will smile or think or want to tell others.

For more on this, check out my recent TEDx talk or my new book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.


Matthew Lieberman's new book "SOCIAL: Why our brains are wired to connect" is now available online and in stores.  For more, follow Matt on twitter @social_brains 


About the Author

Matthew D. Lieberman, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Social.

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