HBR: The Three Scientific (and Quite Surprising) Factors that Make a Message Go Viral

Srini Pillay (Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School, teacher, and author), writes about a study in Harvard Business Review, where an MRI scan is used to test for correlations between neural activity and sharing content.

A recent study demonstrated that we can successfully predict which messages will go viral and which will not. This study showed that the ideas that are destined to spread have a characteristic signature at their origin — that is, quite literally, within the brain of the sender. These messages specifically activate key regions in two circuits in the sender’s brain: the “reward” circuit, which registers the value of the message to the sender, and the “mentalizing” circuit, which activates when we see things from the point of view of the person who receives the message…

…The more you value an idea that you want to spread, the more likely you are to be successful at spreading it.  In addition, the more accurately you can predict how others will feel about the message, the more likely you are to be successful at spreading this idea. These findings are profound because they imply that we can predict which messages will go viral…

…when you also register that your actual value is that you are investing in helping to cure people from their illnesses or shorten their durations of suffering (“y”).  You may not be right all the time, but if this is your genuine reward, your brain’s reward circuit will be activated because this will always be true

How will they feel about the fact that you have a history of success in biotechnology investing? How will they feel about their own investment in the well-being of the world? Do they care about communicating this to their families? Would they be excited about the rapid advancements in this field and seeing the newness of the opportunity? Here again, these different aspects of how your audience thinks will help to accentuate the activation in your mentalizing circuit — where you form a mental picture of the audience’s needs and wants.

it would make a difference if he or she actually wanted to spread the message rather than just passively feeling that the message is valuable. This implies that it matters when you think of how a message can be useful to others rather than simply thinking about yourself.

All three factors (value, mentalizing, and intention to spread) point to the fact that the social currency of a message matters at the very source of the message.

On one hand, my initial reaction is that this is too idealistic.

However, the researcher in me can’t argue with experimental data.  Which is why the article leads me to self-reflect.  Oftentimes, I do blog with the objective of just shouting into the void.  Of curation. Very self-focused objectives.  When, if people (including me) and brands would start growing a sincere interest in being useful…maybe, that is all that really matters.

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