Sharing on social media makes us overconfident in our knowledge

September 4, 2022

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Sharing on social media makes us overconfident in our knowledge

Sharing news articles with friends and followers on social media can prompt people to think they know more about the articles’ topics than they actually do, according to a new study.

Social media sharers believe that they are knowledgeable about the content they share, even if they have not read it or have only glanced at a headline. Sharing can create this rise in confidence because by putting information online, sharers publicly commit to an expert identity. Doing so shapes their sense of self, helping them to feel just as knowledgeable as their post makes them seem. This is especially true when sharing with close friends.

The research is in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. The findings are relevant in a world in which it’s simple to share content online without reading it. Recent data from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism show only 51% of consumers who “read” an online news story read the whole article, while 26% read part, and 22% looked at just the headline or a few lines.

The present researchers conducted several studies that support their theory. In an initial one, the researchers presented 98 undergraduate students with a set of online news articles and told them they were free to read, share, or do both as they saw fit. Headlines included “Why Does Theatre Popcorn Cost So Much” and “Red Meats Linked to Cancer.”

Next, they measured participants’ subjective and objective knowledge for each article – what the students thought they knew, and what they really knew. Reading articles led to increases in both objective and subjective knowledge. Sharing articles also predicted increases in subjective knowledge – even when students had not read what they chose to share, and thus lacked objective knowledge about the articles’ content.

In a second study, people who shared an article about cancer prevention came to believe they knew more about cancer than those who did not, even if they had not read the article.

Three additional studies found this effect occurs because people internalize their sharing into the self-concept, which leads them to believe they are as knowledgeable as their posts make them appear. Participants thought they knew more when their sharing publicly committed them to an expert identity: when sharing under their own identity versus an alias, when sharing with friends versus strangers, and when they had free choice in choosing what to share.

In a final study, the researchers asked 300 active Facebook users to read an article on “How to Start Investing: A Guide for Beginners.” Then, they assigned students to a sharing or no sharing group. All participants were told the content existed on several websites and saw Facebook posts with the sites. Sharers were asked to look at all posts and choose one to share on their Facebook page.

Next, in a supposedly unrelated task, a robo-advised retirement planning simulation informed participants that allocating more money to stocks is considered “more aggressive” and to bonds “more conservative,” and they received a customized investment recommendation based on their age. Participants then distributed a hypothetical $10,000 in retirement funds between stocks and bonds: Sharers took significantly more investment risk. Those who shared articles were twice as likely to take more risk than recommended by the robo-advisor.

What the researchers say: “When people feel they’re more knowledgeable, they’re more likely to make riskier decisions,” said the lead author. The research also suggests there’s merit to social media companies that have piloted ways to encourage people to read articles before sharing. “If people feel more knowledgeable on a topic, they also feel they maybe don’t need to read or learn additional information on that topic. This miscalibrated sense of knowledge can be hard to correct.”

So, what? This research is interesting in that it demonstrates people’s need for status. Sharing information—even if you haven’t any real knowledge about the subject—may increase your status among the group that you feel you need for support.

We humans have always sought status within the context of groups that we belong to. We do this by showing the members of that group that we are of value to them, that they therefore need to protect us. Status is closely aligned with safety.

The groups that we erstwhile sought that safety/status from have largely disappeared—even the work group is a declining location of support with the increase in virtual working. For many, all that is left is social media and posting is a way that you get noticed and, perhaps, valued.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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