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6 Reasons Everyone's Taking the Ice Bucket Challenge

The viral charity phenomenon is based on some sound psychological principles.

By now, you have likely either participated in or at least observed others take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that has swept the nation in recent days. It is amazing how popular this trend has become overnight. Who would have guessed that you could so quickly get countless people from all walks of life to publicly dump ice water over their heads to support the ALS Foundation?

But if you know a few things about psychology and theories of behavior change, this viral phenomenon makes perfect sense and, in fact, isn’t so surprising at all. For the challenge to become the phenomenon it has, a confluence of psychological principles have to come together, including these 6:

1. Make it fun.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is fun, isn’t it? Watching people's reactions as they participate is funny and entertaining. It's simple, too—anyone can do it.

2. Give specific, time-limited instructions for behavior.

Asking people to engage in a highly particular and doable behavior—and then giving them a limited period (in this case, 24 hours) to pull it off—is effective and is very similar to classic retail strategies like the Black Friday sale on the day after Thanksgiving (and we all know how well that works).

3. Call out particular people in a public way.

Being highly specific about whom you nominate to participate in the ice bucket challenge, and then making that challenge public via social media, forces others to respond and act quickly. This avoids the diffusion of responsibility that occurs when general calls to action are made with no particular people in mind. And asking three people to participate keeps the chain of demand going in an exponential way. People can’t ignore the public callout and thus feel compelled to respond by participating. Asking each dunker to nominate three other people assures growth in participation even if half of all the people asked ignore the request.

4. Make the donation amount reasonable.

The suggested donation to the foundation of $100 is not overwhelming for most people who use social media and have regular Internet connection. It is significant but doable. Of course, it is a lot of money for some who may still donate less or support the campaign by getting others involved.

5. Add a little guilt.

A little guilt can go a long way for behavior change, in that people will feel compelled to participate when the challenge is for a good cause, and when they can see through the ubiquitous online videos that others they like and admire are participating, too.

6. Use appealing role models.

Having celebrities, close friends, and business associates act as models for the challenge improves the chances that others will do it, too. Observation learning theory basically states, "If person X will do it, then I want to do it, too." In many ways, then, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has employed the same psychological principles as the old chain letter approach familiar to many of us of a certain age. Social media offers a more modern, high-tech take on the method for getting people to engage in behaviors that you desire.

So, go ahead: Dump ice water on your head and ask your friends, relatives, and co-workers to do the same! Have fun with it. Whatever you can do to help a worthy organization make life better for others is a good deal. Just realize that psychological theories and strategies are being well utilized to push this phenomenon—in ways that are completely expected.

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Copyright 2014 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

PS: And by the way, check out my son’s rather creative Eagle Scout inspired version of the Ice Bucket challenge (featuring knots, flames, and rope):

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