At Wharton we start an interesting course this weekend on contagion and what it takes for a product to go viral, if that can be studied within a classroom setting. Prof. Jonah Berger will be offering this much awaited and over-subscribed course that includes several folks from class 36 auditing along with us class 37ers, and a dozen east coast class 37 students flying in as well. So the expectations are sky high .. no pressure, Jonah!
As I got thinking about this class, I wanted to read a few related books to see what’s out there. Was fascinated to cross paths with “On Rumors” by Cass Sunstein. In a short but thought-provoking book Sunstein dissects the anatomy of a rumor, and how successful rumors stay sticky and spread. He classifies the propagators into self-interested, malicious and altruistic (recommend you read the book to follow the context of the terms – slightly different from their normal meanings in English) and identifies two key methods of propagation – social cascades and group polarization. He shows how important prior convictions are in terms of how a rumor affects an individual, and shows, quite disturbingly that sometimes when faced with the truth people choose to adhere to the rumor more tightly due to prior convictions. This disconfirmation bias lies at the root of several rumors that have stuck in today’s world – starting from those about the validity of global warming, to the country of birth of the President of the second largest democracy in the world.
If I recall correctly, Dan Ariely had referred to Sunstein’s work in one of his books on irrational choices as well in addition to “Blunder” by Zachary Shore – another delightfully thought-provoking read on why smart people make bad decisions. By pure chance I crossed paths with “Thought Contagion” by Aaron Lynch, a book inspired by Douglas Hofstadter and Richard Dawkins, that goes much deeper into the anatomy of memes and the different categories that memes fall into and how they spread differently. So expect more about that in a future post.
After having encountered these books, of course I had to go back and re-read Malcom Gladwell’s classic “The Tipping Point” that is laden with anecdotes on what causes ideas to tip past a certain critical mass. Tipping Point also set the stage and terminology for a lot of conversation and studies around contagion and stickiness in today’s literature. I’ve always been a fan of Gladwell’s writing style and his anecdotes, though I often take issue with his confounding of correlation and causation. Its amazing to see that terms from his book like maven and stickiness have been sticky and are part of common parlance today while discussing contagion.
As psychologists and economists get together to delve deeper on what drives our purchasing decisions, the world is headed towards a heady and scary future where every possible behavioral kink would be exploited to maximize gains from purchasing habits. While this may not always be good for the consumer the interesting question to ask after a couple of decades of this, is how the human brain evolves and optimizes around these new stimuli. Just as the noise on the Internet drove people towards recommendation-based purchasing and drove the fortunes of companies like Amazon through their recommendation engines, it will be interesting to see what new aided decision making platforms get created to circumvent and stay ahead of the marriage between behavioral economics and the corporate world.