I entered a scientific career for the purest of reasons: To pursue knowledge for its own sake.  Like many of the self-righteous hipster intellectuals of my generation, I had a hostile attitude toward the word “popular” (Frank Sinatra and Barry Manilow were way more popular than the Seeds and the Velvet Underground, but way less cool). 

But now, after decades hiding away in the ivory tower doing pure science, I want to sell out.  My students and I have generated dozens of great scientific findings, cool discoveries that shine new lights on topics from homicidal fantasies and one-night stands to economic decision-making and religious beliefs.  Before I retire to a cabin in the woods, I want to spread the word about those findings to as many people as possible, not just to other academics in Research I universities, and to the tiny class of researchers who read Psychological Review, but also to the people who read the New York Times, the LA Times, and even the New York Post. 

If you’re going to sell out, though, you want to do it in style, to be a high priced escort rather than a streetwalker.  You write a book, you want to see it on the New York Times best-seller list; you write a blog, you want it to go viral. 

But selling out ain’t easy

In a famous presidential address to the APA, George Miller encouraged his colleagues to “give psychology away.”  That sounds a lot better than “selling out.”  But no matter what you call it, it’s not as easy as it sounds. 

I’ve now taken steps to enter the ranks of popular press authors, with one book just out in paperback (it’s subtly titled Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life, and it really does talk about how all that is connected!).  The second one, just listed for pre-purchase on amazon.com, has a less sensationalistic title (The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think), but perhaps a more sensational premise: That the two main views of economic decision-making (Wall Street Rationality and Behavioral Economic Irrationality) need to be replaced by a third evolutionarily informed view: what my colleagues and I call Deep Rationality. 

Before you can even publish a book, though, you need to sell the idea to a publisher, then you need to convince the publisher’s marketing people that the book deserves their attention, so that they can get the word out.  In fact, I was in Manhattan just last week, trying to get the marketing and publicity staff at Basic Books excited about our new book, and to get their inputs on how to help the book get noticed.  Working with my son’s video production company, we even made up a snazzy video, complete with music and animations, to explain why this book will appeal to all the same people who snatched up best sellers like Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On 

In this frame of mind, I was quite receptive when my literary agent, Jim Levine, handed me a book titled: Contagious: Why Things Catch On.  The book’s author is another of Jim’s clients, Jonah Berger, a young professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of business.  Berger is a rising star, who has become a world expert on the question: Why do some ideas go viral?  In one study, for example, Berger and Kathleen Milkman analyzed 6956 articles in the New York Times, asking which ones were most likely to make it onto the “most emailed list.”  Another one of this studies, with social psychologist Grainne Fitzsimons, had the engaging title “Dogs on the street, pumas on your feet: How cues in the environment influence product evaluation and choice.”  The latter paper opens up with a story about how sales of “Mars Bars” candy skyrocketed when NASA landed the Pathfinder spacecraft on the surface of our neighboring red planet.

In Contagious, Berger lays out 6 principles for making ideas going viral, along with brief descriptions of the scientific research that backs up these principles, lots of interesting examples of viral ideas, and even an acronym to help you remember the principles (STEPPS).  Berger is here following in the footstep(p)s of his Stanford advisor, Chip Heath, who also uses a misspelled acronym – SUCCES, to describe the principles that make ideas “sticky”).  Here they are:

Social currency:  As Berger notes:We share information that makes us look good.  It helps us look good if that info is scarce or secret.  It’s great to be the first person on the block to possess that critical new knowledge or cool new product.  Berger describes a hidden bar in New York that you can only enter through a telephone booth in a hot dog restaurant, and then only if you know which number to dial (the bar is even called Please Don’t Tell, though they give you a card as you leave, hoping you will do what everyone else does with “secrets”).  In Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life, I introduce my research on homicidal fantasies and selective memory by sharing a few secrets about myself, including a murderous fantasy and a ménage a trois.  But if you read the book, please don’t tell.  

Triggers: Berger here notes that information on the top of your mind is more likely to make it to the tip of your tongue.That accounts for the surprising fact that Cheerios gets more online discussion than Disneyland – Cheerios are primed every day at breakfast, Disneyland only comes to mind when people are thinking about vacations.  The power of association is immense, though sometimes invisible; Berger also observes how people whose voting booths are located in schools are more likely to fund education bills, for example.  One ad campaign cleverly magnified its use of triggers, by switching a beer ad’s jingle from: “Holidays are made for Michelob!” to “Weekends are made for Michelob!”  So over the next couple of months, I will need to come up with a jingle like “The Rational Animal: Don’t think about money, food, or family without it!”

Emotion: When we care, we share.  Are people more likely to share ideas, articles, or web pages that evoke positive emotions like love and awe or negative emotions like anger or sadness?  If you guessed positive emotions, you were partly right.  It’s why we made up a happy little music video, complete with amusing animations, to describe the main ideas in “The Rational Animal.” On the negative side, people don’t share things that make them sad. But oddly, they do share things that make them angry.  Why? Berger’s research suggests that arousal is the key: Anger and happiness are both stimulating.  Indeed, when I look at the links my friends are sharing on Facebook, there are as many links to truly annoying news as to comical jokes.  So, how about: “Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: It may make you laugh, it may make you mad, but it will not help you get to sleep!”  

Public: Berger’s line here is:Built to show, built to grow. Think about the luminescent Apple symbol on your MacIntosh, or those Ralph Lauren ponies and Izod alligators you’re wearing all over town, turning you into a walking billboard.  I wonder if my publisher will cough up for logo t-shirts, and get Jennifer Lopez to wear one to next year’s Grammy awards?

Jennifer Lopez shows off her new Rational Animal t-shirt!


ractical value:
News you can use.  Berger found that the most shared articles in the New York Times dealt with practically relevant topics like food (recipes, new restaurant reviews), health (which vegetables will make you healthier after eating in that new French restaurant), and education (what your kid should be learning at school).  Berger quotes William Buckley, who was asked what he would take along to read if he were marooned on a desert island, and answered: “A book on shipbuilding.” The practicality principle explains why so many people read books like “Yes! 50 scientifically proven ways to be persuasive” “Made to Stick” and “Influence.”  And it makes me glad that Vlad Griskevicius and I included a Cialdini-styled chapter in our new book -- describing how to watch out so that your Deeply Rational decision-making biases, which worked well for your ancestors, don’t get parasitized by well-dressed and friendly-looking compliance professionals in the modern world.

Stories: Berger’s catch phrase here is:Information travels under the guise of idle chatter.  People love to share stories, like the one about the guy who went from obese to slender by eating nothing but Subway sandwiches.  My colleague Bob Cialdini has an even better spin on this principle, which is that people love their stories in the form of mysteries.  Why, for example, do people like M.C. Hammer, who go from rags to riches, so often turn around and go back from riches to rags?  What made so many wealthy people buy into Bernie Madoff’s pyramid scheme, when it seemed so obviously “too good to be true?”  Stay tuned, or, better yet, be the first on your block to buy our forthcoming book, and find out before your neighbors do! 


Berger, J. (2013). Contagious: Why things catch on. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Berger, J., & Fitzsimons, G. (2008). Dogs on the street, Pumas on your feet: How cues in the environment influence product evaluation and choice.  Journal of Marketing Research, 45, 1-14.

Berger, J., & Milkman, K.L. (2012).  What makes online content viral?  Journal of Marketing Research, 49,192-205.

Cialdini, R.B. (2009).  Influence: Science and Practice.  Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Cialdini, R.B. (2008). Organizing for surprise: A career of arranging to be captured.  Pp. 19-38 in R. Levine, A. Rodrigues, & L.C. Zelezny (Eds.), Journeys in Social Psychology, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Goldstein, N.J., Martin, S.J., & Cialdini, R.B. (2008).  Yes! 50 scientifically proven ways to be persuasive.  New York: Free Pres.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007).  Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. New York: Random House.

Kenrick, D.T. (2011).  Sex, murder, and the meaning of life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.  New York: Basic Books.

Kenrick, D.T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013).  The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think.  New York: Basic Books.  Check out the amusing animated video, it is guaranteed to make you feel good and to enhance your social currency! 

About the Author

Douglas Kenrick

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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