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What makes people share content?

My name is Laura Mai and I was formerly a behavioral designed consultant (which is a fancy name for applied human psychology in UX and marketing) and now I own my own content creation business where I’m the director of Marketing at Grit Blueprint and help clients like 3x NYT Bestselling author and behavioral economics & psychology professor at Duke Dan Ariely boost awareness for their brands.

Do you remember the black squares on Instagram?

Do you remember when Black Lives Matter reached its peak and everyone was posting black squares on Instagram and the words ‘virtue signaling’ started popping up everywhere?

Well, there's more to virtue signaling than you'd think, and it causes people to act irrationally.

It turns out virtue signalling is part of a bigger theory called signalling theory. What is signalling theory? Signalling theory provides insights into how seemingly irrational behaviors or social norms emerge in social interactions. 

Why signalling happens

Signalling theory was introduced by Michael Spence in 1973 Signalling theory falls under an even bigger umbrella called game theory.

Game theory is a branch of applied mathematics that provides tools for analyzing situations in which parties, called players, make decisions that are interdependent. This interdependence causes each player to consider the other player’s possible decisions, or strategies, in formulating strategy.

Game theory holds within it infinite and finite games. 

An example of a finite game is being married, an example of an infinite game is staying married.

We like to know who we can trust, and being willing to play the infinite game is a good sign we can trust each other in cooperative social interaction.

Problems arise when the first mover (the truster) is uncertain about whether their trust will be reciprocated by the second mover (the trustee) because in situations without formal binding agreements, self-interested trustees may choose not to reciprocate that trust.

So, in order to determine whether someone can be trusted, we look for signals.

These signals are stronger when in public or on social media because there is more commitment to the ideas, especially if this commitment has been positively reinforced by the group you are trying to signal to.

The downside of signalling

Let’s talk about two examples of signalling theory, virtue signalling and education as signalling.

If you’ve been guilty of this before, don’t worry most people have (including me). Sometimes we signal because we want to be more committed than we are. An example of this is posting a photo of you at the gym so you might be reinforced socially to keep going.

This can be reinforced by early pioneer of IQ theories, Charles Spearman’s, work from 1904 where Spearman measured a G factor which is fixed intelligence across subjects, and an s factor which can be influenced on specific subjects based on work put into it. Some general education may simply reinforce the G-factor while limiting growth on the s factor, but signals students are growing substantially in their s factors regardless of whether this is true or not.

Because of these discrepancies, introducing a signalling opportunity doesn’t always increase overall trust; it may even reduce trust under certain conditions. This is especially true from my observations when companies make claims on things like the environment with easy to find practices that refute the idea that they care.

Ok, but what does this have to do with marketing?

In my interview with Ian Forrester last week, we spoke about how attention is captured through emotion, but is shared due to signals.

People don’t share because they think something is funny, they share because they think something makes THEM look funny.

People don’t share because they find what you wrote interesting, they share because they think it makes THEM look interesting.

So when making content, if you want people to share, make posts that will signal something positive about them.

If you liked this post, follow me for more psychology backed marketing tips.


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