The Psychology Behind Why We Share on Social Media

When it comes to social media sharing, psychology plays an important role. Let’s take a look at five main explanations for this.

Social media content is taking over the internet—literally. Twitter’s audience grew 29% year-over-year to a staggering 187 million users, sending out over 500 million tweets per day. On YouTube, users upload 400 hours of content every minute. Facebook boasts 2.8 billion monthly active users who spend nearly twenty hours per month on the site. In a short time, the internet has been transformed by social media, and social media has begun to transform society.

As always, psychology is interested in finding answers to questions of why we behave the way we do. When it comes to social media sharing, five main explanations dominate the discussion.

1. To Convey Our Identity

People on PhonesOur sense of identity is often connected to our “ideal self.” Image via Irina Strelnikova.

Perhaps one of the strongest forces driving our motivation to share is based on our sense of identity. More specifically, the desired version of ourselves that we want to project onto the world.

In a social media sharing study conducted by The New York Times, 68% of respondents said they share to give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about. The psychologist Carl Rogers provided a possible explanation for this. He argues that our personalities are composed of a “real self” (who we really are), and an “ideal self” (who we want to be).

According to Rogers, we’re constantly motivated to pursue behaviors that bring us closer to our ideal self. So, the content we share could be seen as a reflection of the person we want the world to see. For example, we might endorse a political campaign to represent our views. Or, we may share a funny video to convey our humor, or a music video to express our musical taste.

Even more, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology reports that social media sharing may supply positive feedback that feeds into our self-esteem. The more we post on social media, the more the platform “rewards” us with likes, follows, and content. This solidifies our belief that the identity we portray on social media is legitimate and encourages us to continue to post for more feedback in return.

2. To Nurture Relationships

People on Smartphones Social media often acts as a conduit to maintaining social relationships. Image via Irina Strelnikova.

Because we’re inherently social creatures, we naturally form and maintain social relationships. Our desire to maintain and enrich these relationships may be another motivation behind why we share online. Given our busy lives and the limited time we have to socialize, social media provides an easy and convenient way to stay in touch with friends.

This is especially true during COVID, when we’ve been more separated than ever. Social media has filled in the gaps of our social lives and provided us an outlet to regain missing connections from our daily lives. In one survey, 43% of respondents said social media makes them feel better when they’re depressed, stressed, or anxious. That’s up 16% over the past two years. Nearly 90% of youth surveyed say social media was either “very” or “somewhat” important in staying connected to family and friends during the pandemic.

Often, we stumble across content that we think will benefit a friend, so we share it with them online. Similarly, we like to share content that has specific relevance to a relationship. For example, we often share content that captures a mutual interest, a shared experience, a private joke, or an idea for a future plan. Facebook users average about one shared post per day. With 2.8 billion monthly users, that’s a lot of shared content!

3. For an Incentive

Card-1.jpg?w=750" alt="Winning Gift Card " class="wp-image-167940" />“Likes” and “shares” are sometimes the result of the promise to receive a free gift. Image via BRO.vector.

Social media can also be an outlet for brands to connect with consumers. A common use of social media sharing is to receive some benefit—like a free gift. We may “like” a page or “share” a post purely to receive a discount or to enter a competition. Another recent study showed that 67% of users who “liked” a brand page on Facebook did so simply to become eligible for special offers. On Instagram, posts relating to contests get on average 3.5 times as many likes and 64 times more comments than regular posts.

4. To Feel a Sense of Belonging

Social NetworkingSocial media gives people a sense of belonging to a community. Image via light_s.

We are also beginning to rely on social media for shaping our understanding of the world around us. According to the Thrive Initiative, teens state that social media has a direct impact on how they interact with the world. Thrive notes that “[t]eens describe social media platforms as a key tool for connecting and maintaining relationships, being creative, and learning more about other cultures and diverse peoples.” Sharing content online gives us a window into a world bigger than what we may currently occupy.

Researchers also theorize that we’re motivated to share content online to feel a greater sense of belonging. In a study conducted by the University of Queensland, an active group of Facebook users was told to engage in normal activity on the site. However, what they didn’t know was that they’d be receiving absolutely no response or feedback for their actions. Every comment was left completely unanswered, and every shared post devoid of any “likes.” At the end of the study, participants reported experiencing significant negative effects on their self-esteem and sense of well-being.

In the same Thrive Initiative piece, it calls out that cyberbullying isn’t the only negative impact of social media on children. The pressure to accumulate “likes” and praise also harms a child’s mood and self-esteem. It reads, “When a child does not receive the expected or desired feedback, or feels a sense of pressure to ‘perform’ or post content (the right content) for ‘friends,’ this pressure or stress can cause anxiety and will probably negatively affect a child’s self-esteem.”

Sharing content online often results in positive feedback from our peers. Most of us would agree that we feel happier if something we share receives a hundred “likes” instead of none. In effect, engaging in an online community and receiving feedback for our actions can provide us with social validation and a greater sense of connection.

5. To Advocate Great Content

Sharing Content It’s important to share high-quality content, whether for entertainment or educational purposes. Image via Viktoria Kazakova.

We all appreciate high-quality content, and sometimes we want to share it to bring value and entertainment to others. In fact, in The New York Times study, 94% of respondents said they carefully consider how the information they share will be useful to the recipient. Similarly, posting irrelevant content is one of the top reasons that a user will unfollow a brand. 

Maybe it’s a video that makes us laugh, or a beautiful image that inspires us, or an interesting article that teaches us something useful. Sometimes, we simply want to share content because we found it enjoyable, and we think other people will too. Social media is ultimately a place for us to connect. With a growing number of people joining the online community, there are many ways for us to use social media to meet and stay connected.

Developing an understanding of how and why people share content is useful for helping you to create appealing content. The better you grasp the motivation behind why people share, the more effectively you’ll be able to create content that reaches, engages, and ultimately gets shared by your target audience.

Learn more about the connection between psychology and marketing:

The Three Principles of Psychology Behind Social MediaUse Color Meaning to Strengthen Your Brand and Increase SalesThe Psychological Meanings Behind Familiar Shapes (And How to Use Them)How We Search It: GriefGo Ahead and Judge: The Science Behind Book Jackets

Cover image via elenabsl.

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