by Vladimir Hedrih

October 26, 2022

in Cognitive ScienceSocial Media

A recent series of studies showed that sharing content online, even when the person did not read it, increases subjective knowledge (how much one thinks he/she knows about a topic), but not necessarily objective (how much he/she really knows about the topic). The effect was stronger when the study participants saw the sharing as voluntary, when the act of sharing could be associated with them personally and when it was shared with closer people.

Researchers found that people whose subjective knowledge was increased in this way not only considered themselves more knowledgeable about the topic, but also acted as if they indeed are more knowledgeable. The article presenting the results of these studies was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Humans are social beings and our social interactions shape our own perceptions about who we are. Our identity is constructed in interactions with others and sharing information about ourselves is an important aspect of such interactions. A part of its importance stems from the fact that knowledge in human society tends to be specialized and distributed across members of the society. No single individual knows everything and knowledge about “who knows what” is very important for our ability to function as a society.

Much of this knowledge is obtained by observing the sharing of information. “Sharing implies knowing,” study authors state. But in the digital age, many social interactions happen over social media where information can be shared without knowing it. We can share information on social media without knowing the contents of what we are sharing. Can such sharing of knowledge increase subjective knowledge i.e., how much one believes one knows without increasing objective knowledge i.e., how much one actually knows?

Study author Adrian F. Ward and his two colleagues conducted a series of two pilot and seven main studies to explore how sharing content on social media affects one’s subjective knowledge on the shared contents. They wanted to know how is our perception of how much we know about a topic influenced by sharing materials on that topic on social media and what factors determine how strong this influence will be.

Participants in the studies were either people recruited through the Mechanical Turk (MTurk) and Prolific Academic platforms or undergraduate students “of a large North American university.” The number of participants per study ranged between 98 in the first study to 904 in the first phase of study 2.

The studies consisted of sets of carefully designed situations in which participants were presented with various textual materials, materials that they would be given an opportunity or asked to share after reading them to a different degree or not reading them at all, depending on the conditions of the particular study.

After the procedure, researchers assessed subjective knowledge of participants about the materials by asking them to indicate how knowledgeable they are about the topic compared to the average person. Objective knowledge was assessed by requesting participants to answer multiple-choice questions about the material.

Results of pilot studies confirmed that people do sometimes share posts on social media and tend to consider those who share posts about a topic more knowledgeable about that topic. Study 1 showed that sharing an article online was associated with higher subjective knowledge, but not with objective knowledge.

Authors conclude that “this dissociation between objective and subjective knowledge suggests that the positive relationship between sharing and subjective knowledge cannot be explained by sharers knowing more than non-sharers about an article’s content”. Study 2 was designed to explore whether it is sharing that inflates subjective knowledge or it is that people with higher subjective knowledge tend to share more. Results indicated that it is indeed sharing on social media that leads to an increase in subjective knowledge.

Studies 3-5 showed that the sharing of content increases subjective knowledge more when sharing was done by free choice (as opposed to being forced or ordered to share), when contents are shared with close friends (as opposed to sharing with strangers), and when the identity of the person sharing is known to others. Finally, study 6 confirmed that, after sharing content, participants not only say that they are more knowledgeable, but also act like they are.

While this series of studies uncovered important psychological mechanisms underpinning subjective knowledge, authors note that future research could focus on examining additional contributors to and consequences of the effect of sharing on subjective knowledge.

The paper, “I share, therefore I know? Sharing online content – even without reading it – inflates subjective knowledge”, was authored by Adrian Ward, Jianqing (Frank) Zheng and Susan M. Broniarczyk


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