Did you really understand that post you just retweeted?

Students showed less
comprehension of the items
they’d chosen to repost. 

What fun it is to write something on Twitter or Facebook and see lots of people repost what you said – no matter the disclaimers in people’s online profiles, we usually interpret reposts of our comments as a mark of endorsement. However, a new study in Computers in Human Behavior puts a bit of a downer on things. The researchers based at Peking University and Cornell University say that the very option to share or repost social media items is distracting, and what’s more, the decision to repost is itself a further distraction and actually makes it less likely that readers will have properly understood the very items that they chose to share.

The research was conducted with dozens of Chinese undergrad users of the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo (very similar to Twitter). In one study, the students had to read forty short (maximum 140 Chinese character) Weibo posts about a recent controversial issue in China – whether or not to help elderly people who have fallen over. Half the participants had the option to repost the items, whereas the others did not. The key finding was that the group who had the option to repost each item performed less well in a subsequent comprehension test of the 40 Weibo posts. Moreover, the participants who could repost made twice as many errors for the posts they had reposted than those they hadn’t. Why should this be? “The feedback function encourages individuals to make quick responses, taking away the time individuals would otherwise use to cogitate and integrate the content information they receive,” the researchers said. They added: “This finding has overarching implications given that the majority users of micro-blogging sites only read and repost others’ messages”.

A second study was similar, with some students given the option to repost Weibo items and others not given this option, but this time the Weibo part of the task was followed by a reading comprehension test on a New Scientist article. The finding – students who’d had the reposting option on Weibo performed worse at the subsequent reading comp test, and this seemed to be because they were more mentally tired after reading the Weibo posts. The researchers said: “When we are reposting and sharing information with others, we unwantedly add burden to our cognitive resources and, as a result, our own understanding of the information is compromised and our subsequent learning hindered.”

Does micro-blogging make us “shallow”? Sharing information online interferes with information comprehension
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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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