Posted on behalf of Amy Wang

The sixth and final principle of contagiousness that Jonah Berger discusses in the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On is “Stories.” According to Berger, creating word of mouth is critical in making products, ideas, and behaviors spread. Stories, as opposed to advertisements and facts, provide an engaging and easily transmittable medium through which people can unintentionally share information that promotes a service, idea, organization, etc.

First, stories are often entertaining, more engrossing than basic facts, and thus get passed along, reaching a large number of individuals. Second, stories often teach an important lesson or convey information and facts (that “come along for the ride” and may not necessarily be the focal point of the narrative itself). Third, stories are often believed more wholeheartedly than other methods of relaying knowledge as they come from personal accounts and experiences. People are less likely to argue against stories than against advertising claims, and in the end, are more likely to be persuaded. In these ways, stories capture people’s attentions, create conversation, and along the way, pass around information that ultimately promotes products, ideas, or messages that are embedded within the narrative.

From product recommendations to viral videos, people create narratives (intentionally or not) that carry a lesson, moral, or take-home message. Instead of listing the features of a jacket, for example, a review that describes how the jacket had the perfect warmth and comfort level when climbing through the highest peaks of Colorado is certainly creating a narrative that is more likely to be taken into consideration and talked about. Another example relates to a video campaign sponsored by Dove that shows the behind-the-scenes processes into making images of supermodels that have helped create today’s beauty standards. The video-story sparked discussion and conversation about an important issue, but it also directed peoples’ attentions to Dove and their products, which helped the company gain millions of dollars in exposure. So, instead of presenting information in a straightforward, fact-based manner, presenting or creating content that includes the product or idea that is meant to be promoted through narratives can increase contagiousness.

This principle can be used in community health interventions by depicting the personal narratives and experiences of individuals who have been using such services successfully. Also, by creating content that shows how individuals from all backgrounds can actively participate in the community health program through a narrative-like manner, the idea of the program may catch peoples’ attentions more successfully and catch on to new audiences.


Jonah Berger’s fourth principle of contagious ideas is “public,” making our products and ideas observable. Berger explains that human herd mentality pushes us to adopt the behaviors that we can see. So if you want something to spread, make it visible. Monkey see, monkey do.

And of course, any book on contagious social behavior must include Apple—so here we are! In this chapter, we learn that the logo on Apple computers was once flipped such that nearby observers would see an upside-down version of the company logo when laptops were open an in use. Applying principles of observability, Apple designers decided to flip the logo orientation such that onlookers would see the Apple trademark right-side up. The beauty of Apple’s decision was that the product design itself served as a marketing tool. (Apple’s decision to sell white headphones instead of following the industry standard of black headphones follows similar principles. When you see someone with white headphones, you know that person is an Apple customer (and you are more inclined to mimic their behavior.)

Apple’s clever design decisions created what Berger would call behavioral residue—the physical traces that most activities will leave in their wake. Lululemon understood the power of this concept when they decided to bag customer purchases in reusable shopping bags instead of flimsy plastic or paper bags. The company knew that the customer would feel compelled to save the bag for grocery shopping and running errands, advertising the Lululemon brand while they were out in public. My favorite (non-consumerist) example of behavioral residue are “I Voted” stickers.

In the public health world, we can leverage this concept by making private thoughts and behavior publicly visible and vice versa. Take binge drinking among college students as an example. Most people know binge drinking is terrible for your health, yet 44% of students binge-drink. What’s the underlying psychology here? Students think everyone around them is binge-drinking because they see kegs at the frat house etc., so they partake in the behavior. (Monkey see, monkey do.) There’s social proof that compels students to drink. What students cannot see are their peers who are not at the frat party (instead sleeping and spending time in their rooms), and the fact that everyone around them hates binge-drinking as much as they do because behavior is public, and thoughts are private. Instead of designing public health education initiatives that tell people what they know (binge-drinking is bad), we may be better off trying to tell college students that in fact, their peers share similar mindsets! The stunning reality that in fact, no one likes binge-drinking.

However, if we’re not careful, the concept of publicity can easily backfire. One public-health centric example is Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug use advertisements. Reagan’s public service announcements showed footage of teenagers smoking and their peers telling them “no.” However, researchers found the PSAs increased marijuana use among young adults. The theory driving this behavior goes back to public vs private behavior. All of a sudden, a once private behavior (marijuana smokers trying to avoid being seen) became wildly public (broadcasted on TV).

Understanding the private/public dichotomy in behavior can help us design products and processes that help to destigmatize certain health-related social behaviors. There are many relevant lessons here for the Help Desk, a GANDHI third year initiative to help connect patients to community-based organizations and support their social determinants of health needs. Think about the WIC debit-style cards which replaced paper food stamps. By turning a former public behavior (paying at a grocery store with pieces of paper) into something more private (swiping a debit card, just as any other customer might), low-income people could feel less stigmatized for partaking in this welfare program.

The Help Desk should consider the observability of its own physical presence with community partners. Increasing our visibility at the health clinic (I hope) would make seeking help on social determinants less stigmatized and allow patients to feel more comfortable in proactively looking for assistance from the Help Desk. Further, having a presence in the local community may remind patients to follow-up with referrals. How should we consider building our initial presence? Marketing visuals (e.g. logo, permanent signage)? Notes on patient take-home files?

As Berger notes in his chapter, if something is made to show, it’s made to grow.

Emotion: “Activating emotion is key to transmission”

Posted on behalf of Alexandria Hurley

Emotion is emphasized in both Made to Stick and Contagious.  The difference is on the emphasis.  In Made to Stick the ability for emotion to increase investment is emphasized.  For Contagious the transmission of ideas is more important.  The reasons behind transmission did not matter as much as the act of transmission itself.  Therefore, while concepts like empathy were emphasized in Made to Stick, in Contagious the more relevant emotions were anger and awe.

The first example of content that went unexpectedly viral was an article written in the New York Times about how a cough can be imaged.  Berger’s explanation for its rapid and extreme transmission was the articles ability to inspire awe.  “When we care, we share.”

The Wall Street Journal publishes a daily list of the most read and emailed articles which “enthralled” Berger.  After changing to an electronic form of data collection he used this information to look for trends of what emotions caused people to share.  Using previously discussed ideas about virality the researchers had the articles ranked by usefulness then analyzed to see if that coordinated with being shared.  “More interesting articles were 25 percent more likely to make the Most E-Mailed list.  More useful articles were 30 percent more likely to make the list.”  This didn’t explain why science articles were shared though.  These articles though often invoke awe, as does a lot of other viral content.

Awe is not the only emotion to inspire transmission though.  “Sadder articles were actually 16 percent less likely to make the Most E-Mailed list.”  Positive articles were 13 percent more likely to be shared than negative articles, but articles that evoked anger or anxiety were more likely to make the Most E-Mailed list.  From this data the researchers concluded that it was arousal that prompted sharing.  The more an article increased arousal the more likely it was to be shared.


Posted on behalf of Gloria Hong

Jonah Berger opens his second chapter with an interesting question: which gets brought up in conversations more often, Cheerios or Disney World? Surprisingly enough, we are told that Cheerios is the winner, showing that trigger may be more important than interest for a topic to get more word of mouth. A trigger is anything that stimulates a thought or an idea, and having more frequent thoughts can lead to action, whether it be talking about it or purchasing the thought-associated product.

In fact, he continues to build upon the significance of trigger by claiming that the timing of the trigger is what determines how soon and for how long the topic of interest will get more word of mouth. A product can get popularized immediately because of coincidental events that occur and remind them of the product being sold. For example, customers bought more Mars candy bars in 1996, when NASA launched the Pathfinder to Mars. With the space mission buzzing constantly in the media, people were reminded about the candy bar more often and sales rose  accordingly. Fast forward to 2011, On YouTube Rebecca Black’s viral song “Friday” received the most attention every Friday.

What helps an idea stick for a longer time is coupling it to things that are constantly on our minds. This was the marketing strategy for Kit Kat, when they launched their “Kit Kat and Coffee” campaign and advertised the chocolate bar as a complement to coffee. With the pick-me-up beverage frequently on our minds throughout the day, we are led to think of Kit Kat more often, and eventually, led to the action of purchasing it.

Employing this concept of trigger, anti-smoking and health-conscious campaigns have also succeeded in selling their message. Most of us can recognize the cowboy depicted as the Marlboro Man, and the anti-smoking organizations have taken advantage of this by advertising an image of the Marlboro man telling another, “Bob, I’ve got emphysema.” By tacking on this dialogue to the familiar advertisement, the anti-smoking campaign has effectively triggered us into thinking of emphysema whenever we see the original poster.

Along these lines then, it makes sense that Cheerios gets more word of mouth than Disney World because the thought of cereal is more likely to be triggered during breakfast time, as shown by data released from Twitter.