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Cognition and perception, Cyberpsychology, Social and behavioural

Sharing an article makes us feel more knowledgeable - even if we haven’t read it

Sharing information can even influence our behaviour: participants made different financial decisions depending on whether they had shared an article on investing.

24 November 2022

By Emily Reynolds

One of the beautiful things about the internet is the sheer amount of knowledge it contains: if you're interested in any topic, you can find a surfeit of information about it in an instant. But this can also have a downside. Search engines can end perpetuating bias, for example.

And research by Adrian Ward from the University of Texas, Austin suggests that we can mistake information we've searched for as our own knowledge. Now, in a new paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Ward and colleagues have found that sharing information online also makes us feel that our knowledge has increased – even if we haven't read it.

In the first study, participants were given the opportunity to read online news articles shared with them by prior participants and share articles with future participants. They could read and/or share as many or as few as they wanted. Following this, they indicated their subjective knowledge for each article topic on a seven point scale ("compared to most people, I know more about this topic") , before answering questions about them, measuring their objective knowledge. 

Unsurprisingly, those who read the articles both knew more objectively and felt more knowledgeable. But those who shared the articles also felt they knew more than those who didn't, whether or not they had actually read the article. However, they didn't actually know any more objectively.

A second study established that people don't simply share articles because they already know about the topic, but rather that the very act of sharing boosts beliefs about how knowledgeable they are.

The next study looked at whether participants' still believed that they were more knowledgeable about a topic when sharing under a false identity.  This time, participants shared articles without reading them. In one condition, they wrote down their initials, which would appear with any article they chose to share with future participants, while in the other they were instead asked to imagine they were pranking a friend by sharing articles under that friend's initials instead of their own.

Again, people felt more knowledgeable about the content of articles they shared compared to those they didn't, even though they hadn't actually had the opportunity to read any of the stories. However, this was only true when people shared under their own identity, and not when they shared under somebody else's. When we share articles under our own name, the researchers suggest, we are effectively identifying ourselves as the source of that information, and so come to believe that we do actually have relevant knowledge.  A further study also found that the effect of sharing on our subjective knowledge is stronger when we share with close friends as opposed to strangers.

A final study looked at whether people act as if they are more knowledgeable after sharing articles, rather than simply feeling more knowledgeable. Participants were asked to read an article on investing, with those in the sharing condition instructed to share it on their Facebook page, and those in the non-sharing condition proceeding without sharing. All participants were then given investment advice by an AI adviser and took part in an investment planning simulation, in which they chose the level of risk for their investment, before responding to self-report measures of financial knowledge and questions measuring objective knowledge.

The results showed that those in the sharing condition took significantly more risk in the investment planning exercise than those in the no-sharing condition, suggesting that sharing articles can change our behaviour as well as our feelings about things.

Overall, the research shows that sharing online content makes us feel like we know more about that topic, although the strength of this effect shifts depending on who we are sharing with and through what means. The final study also suggests that this can change how we act, making decisions differently based on having shared information.

If we are indeed sharing without reading, we may therefore believe we are more knowledgeable about particular topics. This could be particularly problematic when it comes to "clickbait" headlines, which often don't accurately reflect the content of an article. As we frequently witness during elections across the world, clickbait headlines often pertain to politics, so sharing these kinds of stories without reading them could make us believe we know a lot about particular politicians, policies, or movements, while actually only having misleading information from the headline we've read.

Social media companies have, in recent years, sought to counteract people sharing information they haven't read through automatic pop ups: Twitter, for example, introduced a feature in 2020 to encourage people to read before they retweet. Later that year, the company claimed that the feature had led to 40% more article opens, though the full impact of such features is not clear; research into such features could further explore how it affects people's beliefs about their own knowledge.