Study: Sharing Social Media Posts Can Cause Cognitive Overload

(Image: Silicon Prairie News)

(Image: Silicon Prairie News)

A new study suggests that the act of "retweeting" or similarly sharing information can create a "cognitive overload" that can effect learning and memory, both online and off.

"Most people don't post original ideas any more. You just share what you read with your friends," said Qi Wang, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University. "But they don't realize that sharing has a downside. It may interfere with other things we do."

Along with colleagues at Beijing University, Wang conducted experiments that found "retweeting" to interfere with memory and learning. The experiments were conducted in China using a group of Chinese college students as the test subjects. While at computer stations, two groups of students were shown a series of messages from Weibo, a social media site used in China that is similar to Twitter. After each message was read, one group was given the option to repost the message or go on to the next one, while the other group was only able to go to the next message.

Once the messages came to an end, students sat through an online test looking back at the content of the messages read. The study found the students in the group able to repost messages got almost twice as many questions wrong as the second group, demonstrating low comprehension skills. Wang added that what this group of students did remember, they did not remember well. "For things that they reposted, they remembered especially worse," she added.

Researchers believe that those who could repost messages suffered from something called "cognitive overload." Wang explained this to mean that when an option presents itself to share or not to share a piece of information, the mere act of making that decision uses cognitive resources, reports Richard Gray for The Daily Mail.

The researchers then performed a second experiment. After students looked at a number of Weibo messages, an unrelated paper test was administered in order to determine their comprehension of a New Scientist article. Similar to the previous experiment, students in the group who were unable to repost messages typically earned higher scores than students in the other group. A Workload Profile Index was also completed by students, asking participants to rate the cognitive demands of the tasks they were required to complete. The results showed a higher cognitive drain among the repost group of students.

"The sharing leads to cognitive overload, and that interferes with the subsequent task," Wang said. "In real life when students are surfing online and exchanging information and right after that they go to take a test, they may perform worse," she suggested.

The researchers suggest that because previous research found that people typically pay more attention to certain elements of web design such as "repost" or "likes" than they do the actual content, web interfaces should be created in an effort to promote cognitive processing rather than interfering with it, adding that online design should be simple and task-relevant.

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