Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Why do some products, ideas and behaviors catch on and become popular? Why are some stories and rumors more infectious? And what makes online content go viral?

If you said advertising, think again, says author Jonah Berger in his new book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Simon & Schuster, March 2013). Berger has spent the past decade studying social influence. He's studied why certain New York Times articles make the Most Emailed List, why some products get word-of-mouth, and how social influence shapes everything we do–from the cars we buy and the clothes we wear to what we eat and the names we give to our children. In one part of the book, he describes the role of emotion in pushing people to share content or products.

"There are reasons to believe that experiencing any sort of emotion might encourage people to share. Talking to others often makes emotional experiences better. If we get promoted, telling others helps us celebrate. If we get fired, telling others helps us vent.

Sharing emotions also helps us connect. Say I watch a really awe-inspiring video, like Susan Boyle’s performance. If I share that video with a friend, he’s likely to feel similarly inspired. And the fact that we both feel the same way helps deepen our social connection. It highlights our similarities and reminds us how much we have in common. Emotion sharing is thus a bit like social glue, maintaining and strengthening relationships. Even if we’re not in the same place, the fact that we both feel the same way bonds us together.

But these benefits of sharing emotion don’t just arise from awe alone. They happen for all sorts of emotion.”

Berger goes on to also discover that it’s not just plain emotion that pushes us to share content. It’s high physiological arousal.

“…Arousal is a state of activation and readiness for action. The heart beats faster and blood pressure rises. Evolutionarily, it comes from our ancestors’ reptilian brains. Physiological arousal motivates a fight-or-flight response that helps organisms catch food or flee from predators.

We no longer have to chase our dinner or worry about being eaten, but the activation arousal provides still facilitates a host of everyday actions. When aroused we do things. We wring our hands and pace back and forth. We pump our fists in the air and run around the living room. Arousal kindles the fire.”

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