The Psychology Behind What Makes Ideas Popular


What makes some ideas spread like wildfire while others are dead on arrival?

Whether you’re a businessman, politician, musician, or artist – your success depends on your ability to get your ideas to spread to large amounts of people.

But how do you get people to pay attention to your ideas? And how do you get people to share your ideas and actually give a damn about them?

Jonah Berger does a great job answering these questions in his book Contagious. He is a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies word of mouth, social influence, and viral marketing.

Using the latest research in psychology and illuminating them with insightful case studies, Berger discovers a common recipe behind good ideas and what makes them catch on.

Here are 6 principles behind what makes ideas become popular. Not all of these principles are completely necessary, but they are often big factors. The more an idea fits this recipe, the more likely it is to be successful.

Social Currency

We share things to look good.

One reason we share things with others is because it makes us look good.

Did you see that new blockbuster movie? Did you try out that new restaurant? Did you hear about a new band no one has heard of yet? We often share this type of information because it shows we are “in the know.”

When an idea is backed by social currency, it means their is value to sharing this information with others. It signals to others that we are knowledgeable, experienced, or “cool.”

One way companies create their own form of social currency is by giving customers rewards that they can show off to others.

Online games and apps often give users a chance to share their progress with friends if they break a new high score or reach a new level. Frequent flier programs provide visible perks for being dedicated to a particular airline. And Foursquare awards special badges for people who frequently go to a certain bar, restaurant, or music venue.

Social currency gives people incentive to share their perks and achievements with others, because they think it makes them look good (in some way).

Similarly I often share my music listening on Spotify through Facebook because I like people to know what I’ve been listening to. That’s a social currency for me, but it also leads me to promote Spotify as well.

The idea is simple: if sharing your idea or product makes people feel better about themselves (if people think it adds a “social benefit”) people are going to be more likely to share it.


We share things we are reminded of.

Another reason we share things is that we are triggered to do so by something in our environment.

This is obvious, but the more we are reminded of something, the more we are likely to share it. How often have you discovered an awesome website or TV show that you wanted to share with a friend, but just never got around to it because you always forget when you’re around them?

That’s because there is nothing in your environment to trigger you to mention it. If it’s outside of your conscious awareness, it’s going to be tougher to remember what you wanted to share.

For example, in 1997 the candy company Mars experienced an unexpected spike in sales even though they hadn’t changed anything about their marketing in years.

The reason? NASA had just started a Pathfinder mission to collect samples on the planet Mars and it was being reported on all over the news. Even though these two things have nothing to do with each other, the simple trigger of “Mars” influenced some people to seek out the Mars candy bar.

Another recent example of this is the song “Friday” by Rebecca Black. Check out this chart from Contagious and tell me what you find:

Rebecca Black Friday Trends

It’s no coincidence that every Friday search results for “Rebecca Black” spike. During that summer, it was hard not to have that song find it’s way into your head at the start of every weekend.

In 2007, Kit Kat launched a marketing campaign to link Kit Kats and coffee, describing the pair as “a break’s best friend.” The campaign was very successful – sales increased, and the $300 million dollar brand grew to $500 million.

This was another great use of triggers because coffee is a common drink that many of us have during mornings and work breaks. Creating the association between Kit Kats and coffee influenced more people to have them together.

All of these examples illustrate the power of triggers. Also keep in mind that triggers don’t have to be a word, they can be any type of object or stimulus that reminds people of our idea or product.


We share things that make us feel.

When it comes to making decisions we are often more motivated by our emotions than our thoughts.

Many people, especially salesman and marketers, already understand the power of emotions to get people to take action. We purchase a product based on our feelings, then we rationalize it after the fact. This is a bias known as “post-purchase rationalization.”

But Jonah Berger dug a bit deeper and found something more specific about why and when emotions are most influential.

A team of researchers analyzed every article published in The New York Times for several months then looked at which articles made it to the “Most Emailed” list. Those were the articles that made the biggest impression and were shared with the most people.

They discovered that it didn’t matter whether the emotions being created were “positive” or “negative,” but rather if they were “high arousal or “low arousal.”

High arousal emotions are what get people the most motivated to take action. On the positive side, this includes emotions like awe, inspiration, excitement, and humor. On the negative side, this includes emotions like anger, fear, and anxiety.

Low arousal emotions tend to have the opposite effect. Relaxation and contentment may be positive emotions, but they don’t drive us to take action. Sadness and misery were also found to not be that motivating.

Whether positive or negative, “high arousal” emotions are what get out blood flowing and our adrenaline pumping. When we find ourselves in a high arousal state, we’re much more driven to take action and share what made us feel that way.

An article about corporate billionaires getting bigger bonuses while others are getting laid off? That gets shared a lot – because it makes people angry and pissed off, and we want to share that anger with others.

A video of someone successfully landing a crazy skateboard trick jumping over a canyon? That gets shared a lot – because it makes people feel amazed and awed, and we want to share that amazement with others.

When it comes to motivating people through emotions, the higher the arousal the better.

Contagious book

Jonah Berger’s Contagious, a great book on how to harness the power of word of mouth, social influence, and what makes ideas spread.


We share things that are easily observable.

Thoughts are private, behaviors are public.

Ideas spread best when they are visible to others, and not hidden from the public eye. This is why marketing hinges so much on commercials, billboards, and logos. But this principle also applies in more subtle ways.

Take voting for example. Often we cast our votes in private, so people don’t see us when we do it. And unless you live by a polling station, it’s unlikely you’ll see people lining up to vote.

But in the 1980s, election officials started giving out “I Voted” stickers to everyone who voted. These were a great way to make the private act of voting more public. If you see everyone in the office wearing an “I Voted” sticker, you’re probably more likely to go out and vote yourself.

When we see others doing something, that adds “social proof” to the activity. If a lot of people are doing something, we are often much more likely to jump on the bandwagon.

Another great campaign that worked off of this principle was Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides support for people affected by cancer.

They used yellow wristbands as a way for people to publicly show their support. And for awhile, everyone seemed to have a Livestrong wristband on. Many other charities adopted the same idea using their own colors (Breast cancer is often associated with pink ribbons and pink wristbands).

The more visible an idea is – the more you can turn private opinion into public expression – the more likely it is that idea will catch on.

It’s one thing if a band makes really great music that you like, but that’s still just your private opinion. If a band wants to grow an audience they often need to find ways for people to share their love publicly, by wearing t-shirts or posting stickers on the back of their car.

Find ways to make people “wear” your idea and share it publicly.

Practical Value

We share things that we find useful.

Another reason we share things is if we find them very useful or practical.

We’re always looking for ways to make our lives easier and better. If someone discovers a great recipe for cheesecake, or a faster way to fold clothes, or a good website on managing your finances, we are more likely to share this information with people who we think would benefit from it.

When researchers analyzed The New York Times most popular articles, they found that a high percentage of them came from the health and education sections.

This wasn’t always because these articles were super fascinating, but because they provided valuable information.

Many articles in the health section covered new recipes, reviews of restaurants, or practical tips on weight loss and boosting mental fitness in middle age.

While articles in the education section covered useful programs for teens, extracurricular opportunities for students, and advice on how to apply to college.

Good practical information can have a direct impact on people’s happiness and well-being. If we come across information that we think will help a person we know, we’ll be driven to share it with them. Why wouldn’t we? Helping people feels good.

Focusing on information that is new, practical, and easy-to-follow is a great way to make your content more popular.

Much of the success of The Emotion Machine hinges on my ability to create “practical value” that people can apply to their everyday lives. My most successful articles are usually ones filled with information that can be put into action, especially when I share step-by-step exercises.

If you can find a specific area in life people need help or guidance in, that’s a good place to start searching for practical value you can offer.


We share things that have a narrative.

Stories are a great way to spread ideas too.

Isolated facts can be a little persuasive, but if those facts come together to form a coherent narrative people are going to remember that information and spread it much more easily.

One powerful example is Subway’s Jared story. Jared used to be really overweight, so much so that he picked his college courses based on whether the class had large enough seats for him.

His roommate became concerned that his health was getting worse and worse, so Jared started a “Subway diet”: almost every day he ate a veggie sub for lunch and a six inch turkey sub for dinner. Long story short, Jared ended up losing over 245 pounds eating Subway sandwiches.

The story blew up and spread like wildfire, but it also gave consumers key information: 1) Subway might seem like fast food, but it has healthy options, 2) You can lose weight by eating there, and 3) Someone can eat mostly Subway for months and still come back for more.

Stories are remarkable for making ideas popular. They are easy to remember, they tug at our emotions, and they are hidden with a lot of information that can influence other people’s decisions.

As parents and teachers, we tell children stories to teach them valuable lessons. As marketers, we tell consumers stories to teach them about our product or service. As politicians, we tell stories to teach about our views and what we think is best for the country.

If you tell someone a hundred facts to support your idea, a person may be a tad persuaded. But if you tell just one good and captivating story, that will leave a much stronger impact on them.


All of these principles come together to give you the psychology behind what makes ideas popular. You don’t need to include all of these principles to get an idea to spread – but the more principles you cover, the better.

Take a moment to think of your own idea, product, or service that you want to spread. Ask yourself, “How well does my idea fit each of these principles?” What are your strong points? What are your weak points?

If you want to learn more, Contagious is one of the best books you’ll find on how to harness the power of word of mouth, social influence, and what makes ideas spread.

Stay updated on new articles and resources in psychology and self improvement:

Related posts:

Comments are closed.