It’s Not What You Post, But Why that Matters

illustration of museum

Story by Jack Croft
Photo by iStock/Nicoletaionescu

Danny Zane is studying how social media posts can spread social motivation contagion.

You’re scrolling through your social media feeds when you come across a post from someone at a museum‚ a concert‚ or some other event. The photo looks obviously staged‚ like the person who posted it is trying to look cool‚ and the caption sounds like the person posting is bragging.

Without even realizing it‚ you may draw inferences about what motivated the person to engage in that experience and post about it. You may have just been contaminated by “social motivation contagion‚” which can make you less likely to visit that museum or attend the next concert at that venue because you anticipate it being less enjoyable.

If you were to attend the event‚ social motivation contagion might inhibit your engagement and even dampen your enjoyment‚ according to a creative online experiment conducted by Danny Zane, assistant professor of marketing in Lehigh College of Business‚ and Matthew Hall‚ assistant professor of marketing at Oregon State University.

“The mechanism through which we’re finding this to happen is unique‚” Zane says. “It’s not just that you look at the guy showing off and say‚ ‘I don’t like him because he’s showing off‚’ but you decide you don’t want to do anything he’s done.”

“If you think about yourself engaging in that experience‚ you’re actually engaging in it for less intrinsic or authentic reasons,” says Zane.

“The person posting and bragging has rubbed off on you‚ their showing off has contaminated you. Perhaps you also take a posed picture in the same place you saw the prior poster do it. You are contaminated by the prior poster’s consumption motives.”

Keeping It Real

Zane and Hall set up the experiment to test whether the inferences consumers draw from social media posts influence their real consumption behavior. Spoiler alert: It does.

The two researchers randomly showed participants one of two mock social media posts purporting to be from someone who visited the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville‚ which also has a virtual tour people can visit online.

One post signaled “intrinsic” or “authentic” motives for visiting the museum—the person truly enjoyed being there. The other post signaled “extrinsic” motives—the person was mainly trying to look cool to gain status or popularity.

The “enjoyment-signaling post” featured the caption: Had a great visit to the car museum this weekend. So many beautiful cars and really interesting to learn about their history. The “coolness-signaling post” was captioned: Had a great visit to the car museum this weekend. Just chilling with all kinds of wild and hard-to-find cars. No big deal.

When asked about their perceptions of the sharer’s original motives for going to the museum‚ participants identified the motives of the “enjoyment-signaling post” as more intrinsic‚ or authentic‚ than those of the “coolness-signaling post.”

Next‚ Zane and Hall had participants visit the virtual version of the car museum‚ telling them they could spend as much time there as they wanted. And the results were fascinating. Those who saw the less-intrinsic‚ “coolness-signaling post” spent 22.3 percent less time in the virtual museum than those who saw the more-intrinsic‚ “enjoyment-signaling post.”

Zane has this advice for those who manage social media accounts for businesses and brands: “If you’re faced with two posts‚ choose the one where the people aren’t posed‚ they’re sort of caught in an authentic-looking way. Make this more authentic looking post the one you comment on as the brand or the one that you retweet or broadcast back out into the world.”

Time Spent in the Virtual Museum (in seconds)

Participants who saw enjoyment-signaling post.

Participants who saw coolness-signaling post.

Why it Matters

Simply becoming aware of social motivation contagion “would be huge for consumers,” Zane says, so they can recognize the effects of a post and not let it bias them one way or the other.