In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business ilLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Danny Zane about his research on the phenomenon known as motivation contagion, and how it spreads on social media.

Zane is an assistant professor of marketing who studies consumer behavior. His research interests include inference making, self-perceptions, and ethical decision-making.

He spoke with Jack Croft, host of the ilLUminate podcast. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript

Jack Croft: The working title for one of your latest research projects is “When Others' Experiential Consumption Motives Become My Own: Exploring Motivation Contagion on Social Media.” I think for a lot of us, anything with contagion in its name sounds kind of scary. So let's start with that. What is motivation contagion?

Danny Zane: I'd definitely say motivation contagion isn't nearly as scary as the contagion related to diseases. Although I will talk about how motivation contagion can have unwanted or at least unknown impacts for both marketers and consumers. So maybe there's a small parallel there.

When we say motivation contagion, we're simply referring to this notion that consumers' motivations for engaging in experiences like going to a concert or going out to eat can actually spill over and lead other consumers to have the same underlying motivation when they engage in the same types of experiences. So Jack, if you believe you went to a concert, let's say, for reasons of pure enjoyment, my belief about your underlying motivation for going for that pure enjoyment will then become the same force that drives my own concert-going experience.

But on the other hand, let's say I believe you went to a concert mainly to show off your front row seats and your VIP passes. Then I might actually approach my own next concert experience with more of a flavor of the showing off and less for pure enjoyment. Again, because your motivation or at least my perception of your motivation became my own.

Croft: So how does motivation contagion spread on social media?

Zane: Historically, motivation contagion has been shown in a physical world context where people are literally face to face. It's been shown in the context of education a bunch—teachers and students and how a teacher's motivation can spill over and contaminate a student's motivation. It's been shown in [the] context of exercise. We think that it could spread in the virtual world as well, which we're very excited and fascinated by.

One of the core features of social media is that it gives us as consumers an unprecedented ability to both easily and vividly share about our experiences that we have with other people. On the flip side, that means that we also see lots of other people's experiences in this very vivid fashion because they are sharing about them. And this matters because there's research showing that consumers believe experiences are very telling of our true selves.

In other words, the things we do, they really define us at a deep level, more so than, say, material goods, for example. When we engage in the same experiences as other people, we know it creates the psychological sense of connection between us at a deep and meaningful level. There's other research showing that. … Therefore, when we engage in the same experience as other people, it creates this psychological sense of connection between us, again, at this pretty deep level. And we think that that gets to the point where we don't only perceive alignment with people for who we engage in the same experiences, but we actually also come to believe that we engage in them for similar reasons.

Croft: There are a couple of terms that will be coming up frequently, I have a feeling. And that's the differences between intrinsic motives and extrinsic motives. If you could, define those for us and tell us what's going on there.

Zane: When someone has primarily intrinsic motives for engaging in an experience, it means that they're doing so out of inherent interest and enjoyment that that experience brings to them. So if you want an example, I encourage you maybe to visualize someone traveling to Paris just to immerse themselves in the French culture because they find it beautiful and idyllic.

Now, on the other hand, when someone has primarily extrinsic motives for engaging in an experience, it means they do so to achieve an external reward. And this could be something as simple as money or success or attention. So now, if you want, visualize someone instead traveling to Paris mainly to visit all the big tourist attractions and to get the perfect picture at each one of those so that they can post that on social media in hopes of gaining lots of likes and comments from the people that follow them.

And then I also think it's worth noting here that as a rule of thumb, as a person's intrinsic motivation behind an experience increases and therefore their extrinsic motivation behind that experience decreases, the experience generally becomes more personally enjoyable or desirable to do.

Croft: As part of this research, you've done a few different studies with your colleague Matthew Hall of Oregon State University where you've looked at whether the inferences people draw from social media posts they've seen actually do affect their behavior. For example, their willingness to go to a holiday market or a pumpkin patch or a museum. … Over this month and throughout December, holiday markets and bazaars will be popping up as frequently as Hallmark Channel holiday movies. So if you could start by describing the differences between the two holiday market posts that you showed participants in the online study and how their reactions differed.

Zane: We focused on the caption of a post while holding the picture constant. In this study, participants were randomly assigned to view one of two versions of a social media post, and each of those had the same picture. This picture was basically a first-person view of a hand holding out a mug of hot chocolate in front of a holiday market stand.

So half of participants saw a caption accompanying this picture that suggested the person was engaged in the experience out of pure enjoyment, saying it was one of their favorite things to do during this magical time of year. And then, if I'm remembering correctly, in the other condition, participants saw a caption something along the lines of, "It wouldn't be a true holiday market experience if I didn't take a cliché pic." And so we thought a caption like this would lead viewers to infer that the sharer was more in that experience for social acceptance or to appear cool, to show off a bit.

Croft: Depending on which of those social media posts you just described the participants had seen, they went to [a] virtual holiday market, and their experience in that virtual market did, in fact, differ rather significantly. So if you could talk about what you learned from their visits to the virtual holiday market and why that's the key in getting insight into what's going on here.

Zane: After they viewed one of the two posts, they visited what I think is a quite immersive virtual holiday market where they could virtually walk around in the snow to different shops and actually check out products on the shelves in each of these shops. So it seemed very realistic. We were proud of our decision to use a virtual market for a few reasons. And this gives you a sense of how long it takes to get a whole research project underway and continue with it. We conducted this study last December. So it's always helpful to make things relevant to participants and it was the time of year where holiday markets, I think, did that.

It also gave us a way for participants from all around the country to have the same experience instead of worrying about how their geographic location or anything else would affect that. It also let us have everyone engage in a real consumption experience so we could test whether the social media posts that they originally viewed changed their motives when actually engaging in real behavior of their own. And then finally, we also thought it was sort of a cool nod to the metaverse where we see virtual reality in the physical world becoming more intertwined every day. And that's especially true for marketers.

We were most interested in how much time participants spent experiencing this holiday market, and that's because intrinsic motivation is linked to spending more time doing something, whereas extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is linked to spending less time doing something. If people spent more time in this virtual market, it would signal that they had more intrinsic motivation behind that experience. Likewise, if they spent less time, it would signal that they had more extrinsic motivation of their own.

And indeed, what we found was that when participants had first viewed the sharer's post that made them infer that sharer was extrinsically motivated when at a holiday market, viewers then spent significantly less time in the virtual market of their own compared to participants who had first seen that post suggesting the sharer had more intrinsic motives. In fact, we actually saw a 25% decrease in how much time they spent in the [holiday market] when they first viewed that post that suggested the sharer had extrinsic motives, which we thought was pretty big and quite fascinating.

Croft: It seems that the implications of what you're finding, both for people who view posts on social media and for the businesses and brands that are looking to attract visitors, are significant. So let's start with consumers, the broader group. How does understanding what's going on with motivation contagion on social media potentially help consumers?

Zane: Social media users, we all view tons of content about other people's experiences. And I'd venture to guess that many of us are not aware of the impact that doing so could have on our own consumption of similar experiences. Our work suggests that the type of post someone else shares about an experience can fundamentally alter your own experience. That's the crux of what we're showing. … At the least, we uncover another potentially hidden force, especially on social media, that impacts our consumption.

Croft: What are some of the key takeaways for people who manage social media accounts for businesses and brands and especially those who are looking to enhance the experience for people and attract people who will spend more time there?

Zane: Our findings would suggest that marketers, the social media account managers, can proactively look to spread content that other consumers will infer to demonstrate the sharer's intrinsic consumption motivation. So when these social media specialists are trying to choose which content to engage with, they should focus on sharing, liking, commenting on posts that signal the sharer's intrinsic consumption motivation, which then should in turn have a positive effect on other consumers' consumption intentions.

Of course, this is relative to posts that signal more extrinsic motivation. So we can only really speak to the comparative nature between posts that would signal intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.

Daniel Zane

Daniel Zane

Daniel Zane, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of Marketing at Lehigh Business.