The Psychology Behind Facebook Sharing

Researchers name three important factors that influence Facebook users’ motivations to share content.

Sharing is caring. It’s not that simple on Facebook, though. When it comes to sharing on Facebook, it’s more than just sharing information for others to see. It’s deeply motivational for psychological rewards. Sharing is a communal practice, but it is largely a presentation of the self. 

Research discussing the psychology behind sharing cite three important factors that influence Facebook users’ motivations to share. These are: psychological incentives, social capital focus, and content types. Findings from other studies, including from the New York Times, are also incorporated into these themes. 

Psychological incentives 

Psychological incentives motivate people to pursue psychological rewards. For example, we seek approval to experience belongingness. Likewise, we practice empathy to feel connection. Therefore, the act of sharing requires deeply personal incentives. Researchers divide psychological incentives into two categories: self-interest incentives and communal incentives.  

Self-interest incentives

Identity maintenance drives self-interest incentives on social media. Social media is space for self-enhancement. In other words, people put themselves in a good light through their actions on social media. Shares, like status updates, are an extension of one’s personality. Users share content to display beliefs, values, and how they see the world. Shares are exhibits of the self.  

Self-interests also include the need for self-fulfillment. Audiences carry a duty to participate, especially during times of distress. In order to feel involved, users share content about causes they care about. People want to feel knowledgeable. They like to look “woke.”

Communal Incentives

Our innate need to feel belongingness guides communal incentives. We are social beings who need interaction and companionship. So, users like to share posts to experience group joy. For instance, many of us love sharing information on travel or concerts. These events can be shared with friends. Secondly, communal incentives can be altruistic. Shares provide helpful information for others to solve problems. Finally, communal-driven shares help users learn about community interests or to express empathy for others.  

Content types 

Based on various literature reviews from present studies, there are several aspects of content that impact its success, effectiveness, and potential for share-ability. These include the content’s quality and narrative style, as well as content valence, in other words, emotional tones.  

Narrative styles often come with relatable, likable characters. These characters generate a sense of empathy for viewers, who want to see them thrive and succeed. Narratives contain drama elements like suspense, plot, and characters that arouse powerful emotions. 

Content with a high emotional arousal, both positive and negative, heavily impact sharing. However, positive emotions, like joy, surprise, inspiration, amusement, excitement, inspiration, and warmth have a more notable, positive impact on sharing than negative emotions. 

With sharing, emotional or entertaining content has more success than information-focused content. Unless there is a high-risk factor associated with the message, studies demonstrate that information-focused content negatively impacts sharing. Most importantly, content must be unique, interesting, or possess a high arousal or stimulation factor.  

Social capital

Social capital is defined as the positive effect of interacting with participants within a community or social network. In other words, it is the rewarding feeling that comes with efforts to grow, foster, and nourish relationships. 

There are two types of social capital: bridging and bonding focus. For example, some use social media to strengthen relationships with close friends (bonding). Others use it to build bridges towards more distant social ties (bridging). The latter can include professional networking or simply reaching others beyond immediate circles. 

The type of content people share thus depends on what kind of social capital they want. Are they sharing to initiate a passionate conversation with their closest friends, who share the same values? Or are they sharing information to reach new audiences or expose distant friends to new ideas? 

Research shows that those sharing with their immediate circles tend to have more self-interest incentives. Those sharing with a variety of groups have more communal motives.  


As with any social media effort, audience analysis is the foundation to your strategies. Think about why they follow you and how that’s part of their identity. Break down this particular aspect of their identity. Create content that awakens this piece of them, motivating a share to proudly display it for others. Determine if your audience has a bonding focus (close friends) or bridging focus (distant ties). Lastly, create quality content laden with emotion or entertainment. Humans are very selective of the information they process. Content that ignites motivational processing can be filtered into the informational funnel of the brain. Therefore, dig deep into these motivations.