Social media is a strangely compelling hunt for novelty. But why are we so addicted to find and and sharing surprising content? It turns out, we share or we die.
The thrill of discovery is fueled by dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates when we're pleasantly surprised but not when we're merely satisfied. Evolutionary biologists have theorised that this is why we're driven to find new things. “Dopamine isn’t interested in what’s expected; it’s interested in what’s surprising so it can help you learn about your environment,” says Robb Rutledge, a researcher at University College London. “Your happiness depends on whether things are getting better or worse, and knowing that can help you make better decisions in the future.”
If one of our ancestors encountered a surprise - for example, picking a harmless-looking berry that makes them ill – they’d find out what happened, shift their perspective about which berries are safe to eat, and then share the experience with others so they don’t make the same mistake. Thus ensuring the happy, healthy survival of their family line. That’s assuming they survived that pesky berry.
This also applies to things that surprise us socially. Nothing spreads faster than a juicy piece of gossip about someone in our community. It is possible that gossip regulates behavior and establishes morality in close-knit communities more effectively even than laws do.
In the digital context, this plays out in the same way. Every day, media does its utmost to share surprising news with us. Most news incidents are anomalies, and this is often what makes them news-worthy. The more surprising they are, the faster they spread. The offshoot is that we learn something new about the world we live in, because like our ancestors before us, when something surprises us, it usually teaches us something, too.
Surprise tends to heighten emotions, which as any good teachers know, are crucial for embedding learning. A happy surprise makes us happier, a surprising joke is funnier, an unexpected sadness is sadder.
In their book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected (2015), Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger describe the ‘surprise sequence’ that they observed through numerous studies in the field of social psychology. Put simply, these steps are 1) Freeze, 2) Find, 3) Shift, and 4) Share. This simple four step framework can give us powerful insight into what kind of content spreads on social media, and how we can use that insight to ensure our ideas get more share-time. But let's have a look at how it works in the real world.
Imagine you arrive home late one evening after work, turn on the lights, and as you do, ten of your good friends jump out from behind assorted bits of furniture and yell, ‘Surprise!’ Your first reaction will likely be of the frozen and shocked variety, this is the Freeze phase - you stop whatever else you were doing. Next you’ll likely attempt to find out what exactly is going on. ‘When did you guys plan this? How did you get in?!’. Then you’ll shift, perhaps into a more relaxed mood, or perhaps you’ll decide to stop leaving your spare key under the pot outside your door. Lastly, you’ll probably share the experience with others - Facebook, Instagram, and of course in person. The bigger the surprise the more you’ll want to share it. Did a friend spoil you with a surprise visit? Worth a mention to someone. Did a friend spoil you with holiday? Worth a good few more.
As humans are always looking for the shift in perspective and practice that will make us safer or happier. It’s in our DNA to do so. And if we find that golden nugget of surprise, we’ll usually share it - with the amount of sharing we do probably proportionate to the level of emotion attached to the surprise and the shift experience.
So, ask yourself, ‘What can I do differently with this in mind?’ If you want your content to spread, remember that the basis of a good story may well be rooted in the surprise sequence:
1. Surprise! Capture attention with a surprising headline, image, topic, timing, or personality.
2. Find. Engage curiosity, draw people in beyond the headline - are you credible, is the topic relevant, who else shared it, is there an appropriate curiosity gap.
3. Shift. Make sense of the surprise. You don’t want your content dismissed as clickbait, so give substance to your content and make it understandable. If people are confused or disappointed they won't get to the all important next step... If your content is genuinely surprising and emotive, people will have a state change, a perspective shift, an aha moment, a lesson... they'll "twig"! This is what you want. You’re changing minds and making lives better!
4. Share. Make your content and surprise easy for people to share right away - a timely nudge could work wonders. Is your call to action clear? Do you ask for the share? Is there a button I can press to make sharing easier?
If you believe in your ideas, it's your job to make them non-boring! Bring them to life by engineering a bit of surprise in how you present them. And next time you hesitate before sharing a piece of news, just remember that the survival of our species may just depend on it.