The Effects of Content Ephemerality on Information Processing

Uri Barnea, Marketing, The Wharton School, and Gideon Nave, Marketing, The Wharton School

Abstract: Many forms of communication, from verbal conversations to messaging and content sharing via apps such as Snapchat and Telegram, limit the number of times people can examine content. We investigate how this restriction affects information processing. Building on the notion that people strategically allocate cognitive effort, we propose that receivers increase allocation of cognitive resources when processing ephemeral content. Five preregistered studies and exploratory analysis of eye-tracking data (total N = 6,543) demonstrate that making content ephemeral – that is, restricting people to view it once (versus multiple times) – increases top-down attention allocation, prolongs voluntary viewing time, and magnifies focus on relevant information. These effects facilitate more accurate recall (both cued and free recall), improve comprehension, and generate more positive attitudes towards likable content. Taken together, these findings suggest that sharers can communicate information more effectively by merely telling their audience that they could not view it again.