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Can You Feel the Most Contagious Emotion?

What's not included for content creators in Jonah Berger's new book Contagious

In Hunt of the Heart of Contagion

As a Stanford graduate student, Jonah Berger pursued a simple goal: to figure out why certain New York Times articles were shared more than others. A pattern-seeking psychology student, Berger yearned to uncover the psychological mysteries of why certain ideas catch on and spread. The Times article study might unlock an answer, he thought.

And if you’ve ever wondered, too, how to make your own ideas and products “catch on” to your fans or customers, you’ll be curious about Berger’s hunt. His discovery is surprising. But his findings might be incomplete for most conscientious marketers, artists, or entrepreneurs in the livelihood of creating and sharing great ideas and art.

Berger had devoured Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Back Bay Books 2002) but found the break-through storyteller’s style wanting when it came to science. Berger also apprenticed with Dan Heath, co-author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House 2007) but also found the Heath brothers’ science incomplete.

Berger and his colleague Katherine Milkman devised a system that scanned and categorized over 7000 articles published in six months - including those articles that made the Most E-Mailed list.

“Interesting” articles made the list 25% more of the time, and “useful” ones, 30% more (Contagious, 101). No surprise there. But beyond health articles and education articles, the one topic that rated way higher in being shared was science.

Why science? Science articles on the mating habits of praying mantises do not immediately help our daily lives as, say, an article on 5 tips to lose weight.

What made the science articles so shareable? Emotion.

The science articles shared the most evoked the same emotion that the most shared articles in other categories evoked.


The Rest of the Story

When I read that conclusion in Berger’s new and highly engaging book Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Simon & Schuster 2013), I lit up with recognition. Part of me knew it - I’ve been tracking wonder for almost ten years - but most of me was still surprised.

Awe is hard to measure. I’ve interviewed both scientists who’ve attempted to study awe that the now-Assistant Professor of Marketing at Wharton references, and one of them told me the effort ultimately was fruitless because awe is so discreet as to defy measurement.

But you don’t have to take scientific studies of scientific articles to know we like to share awe.

You can look at your own experiences. People who've been to Machu Picchu or the Grand Canyon can't wait to return home to tell their friends in Detroit or to show their iPhone shots of their mug with the chasm behind them. Somehow, the awe gets lost in translation. Why? We'll touch on that in a moment.

You also might relate to Berger’s other example, a Youtube video viewed over 100 million times. I’ve seen the video more than once and get teared up each time. It’s the video of the dowdily dressed, frumpy-haired 47-year-old Susan Boyle’s stunning debut on Britain’s Got Talent. Watch the video as Boyle’s voice releases “I Dreamed a Dream” and elevates everyone in the theatre, and you can witness the whole emotional arc of the crowd and judges move from derision to disbelief to astonishment. (Test: I just showed it to my wife, and I teared up again.)

You cannot help but feel the tingles of astonishment move through your chest and up the back of your neck - very different from your friend showing you a digital photograph of the Taj Mahal.

But why do we need awe?

Berger's book doesn’t aim to address this question, but Nicholas Humphrey hazards an answer. The British psychologist and author of the delightful meditation Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness (Princeton 2012) suggests that enchantment is “the biological advantage of being awestruck.”

Humphrey’s insight echoes biologist Barbara Ursula Goodenough’s call to her colleagues to awaken more wonder that biologists might preserve the very thing they’re studying: life.

And Melanie Rudd, a PhD candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, published a study that suggests that our experiences of awe expand our experience of time and, in turn, can correlate to more altruistic behavior.

Finally, these findings illuminate something I tracked down when cataloguing the different words for wonder in different cultures. The Lakota people’s word that comes closest to wonder is itonpa. It also means “to praise” and “to care for.”

When we wonder, we care. And when we care, we preserve.

Berger reminds us, “When we care, we share.”

That’s true, but without a core understanding of what drives us, we risk becoming content marketers with no greater mission than to get 100 million views or onto the New York Times’s best-seller list (which was part of Berger’s drive as he admits baldly in a Fast Company profile and as he succeeded in doing - a test of Contagious’s contagiousness).

Science journalist Denise Grady didn’t write her piece on coughs for the Times with the intention to make it a viral phenomenon. And Susan Boyle didn’t sing by formula. And I would suggest that the deft editors of that video plus the narrative arc of audience expectation and the judges’ derision had as much to do with the video’s contagion as Boyle’s singing.

And Humphrey’s book - an utterly enchanting meditation by a “romantic scientist” by the way - itself did not reach contagious status. But Jason Silva - whom the Atlantic has tagged “the Timothy Leary of the Viral Video Age” - did get close to half a million views with his video film “The Biological Advantage of Being Awestruck” - which, of course, in Silva’s inimitable style evokes awe via words, gesture, music, image, and a wild mind at work.

What Jason Silva has Susan Boyle has - fervor + devotion to the mind, art, medium, and humanity-at-large.

I work with entrepreneurs developing their brands and creative professionals building their platform, and most of them are rightfully wary of feeling manipulative when it comes to marketing.

To make contagious and enduring content, art, brands, you or someone on your team needs to feel the heart of awe and create with feelings comparable to it.

Easier said than done.

I'll be audacious enough to offer these ideas to complement Berger’s otherwise illuminating, practical, valuable ideas presented in evocative stories (all parts of his 6-part Contagious form) and to solicit your conversation in the comments below:

1. Light your own grassfire.

If your idea doesn’t genuinely ignite a grassfire in you and send you chasing a hot and curious path of questions, your idea might be less likely catch on.

2. Elevate your patch of the planet.

Imagine how, even for a few minutes, your audience, fans, customers will be slightly better than they were before they received your idea or product.

Be sure you care enough about the idea’s importance before you expect us to care.

Feel the idea at the level of itonpa. Otherwise, you risk being a manipulator instead of a magical messenger. There’s a difference. One toys with emotions to sell. The other shifts awareness and consciousness to change behavior and to elevate.

It helps to get outdoors, somewhere physically out of your natural surroundings.

Nike’s acclaimed ad "Find Your Greatness," in Nike’s signature elegant and transcendent style, does the latter. (And for the record this ad does not evoke awe but wonder - but another eminent psychologist tells me I'm "mincing words.")

3. Drop us into the Rabbit Hole.

Cute alone is not contagious. Sending me a photo of a kitten playing with a pink string might make me smile (or not), but I’m not very likely to share it with anyone because cuteness doesn’t really change my life or outlook.

Surprise us. Disorient us. Disrupt us from our natural state of affairs. Present you idea or product in a way that awakens us and helps us feel more alive than we’ve felt the whole work day.

4. Study and innovate contagious form.

One reason your friend's iPhone photograph of the Grand Canyon does little to evoke in you the desire to share it with others is that the form itself - a snapshot & the small-scale of the iPhone screen - aren't given to create such a memorable experience.

John Branch's stunning multi-media feat "Snow Fall: The Avalance at Tunnel Creek," however, takes digital journalism to a whole new level. We're awed in part because of the the New York Times's innovation of what digital "reading" can feel like.

Berger pored over Gladwell’s and the Heath brothers’ books to distill not just their content but their style and structure. He studied story, sticky phraseology, and more. He didn't exactly innovate it so Contagious lacks the same effect as, say, The Tipping Point did when it came out.

Silva’s videos - like the Britain’s Got Talent videos - work as much for form as content. So, study media as art forms to be mastered and innovated not as formulas to be manipulated and imitated.

5. Create to the edge of your own campfire.

This is tricky and requires more than a few sentences so shame on me for mentioning it. But when you’re developing an idea or product, periodically trip up your default, analytical approach to “get things done” and execute. Delight in the craft. Savor the details. But also double-check that you’re not keeping the idea or product safely packaged and contained within your own familiar conception - your campfire. If your work challenges your own assumptions, it’s more likely to bring us, your audience, to the edge of our own comfort.

And when we come to the edge of something such as, say, the Grand Canyon, well, then, we cannot help but feel struck by the chorus of awe.


What has been your experience in creating and experiencing contagious ideas, art, and products? How do we consider intangible things such as intention, mastery, process in addition to the actual product? Scholars, marketers, artists, entrepreneurs - what would you add?

Jeffrey Davis is an author, speaker, and creative strategist who thrives on helping thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and creative professionals finesse the art & science of captivating creativity.