Which Messages Go Viral and Which Ones Don’t

Which Messages Go Viral and Which Ones Don’t


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. From the moment we first formulate a message, these two factors play a key role in whether or not they will go viral. 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 and which ones will not based on these two factors. If this is the case, how can you optimize both of these factors in the messages that you would like to spread in your business?

Let’s take a look at “value.” On the surface, it would seem that any idea that you want to spread is one that you might value, but have you really examined this value enough to communicate the essence of it? For example, if you are a biotechnology fund manager who wants to communicate the importance of investing in biotechnology, you may think that your value is in your recent success in investing for shareholders, but if you are a reasonable person, you will likely also have doubts about this. Hence, the value that you create for shareholders will create a value “x” that will activate your own reward center. But this activation will not be as large as 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. Also, if you really recognize how emotionally satisfying this will be to you, this will provide further value and activate the reward center even more (“z”). Thus value has financial, social and emotional implications, all of which can add up (x + y + z) to enhance activation of the reward center of your brain.

Similarly, the degree to which you can predict the way your audience will feel may also involve multiple dimensions. 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.

In addition to these factors, the study also showed that regardless of personal preference, if you have the explicit intention to spread a message, the message is more likely to spread. For example, for that same biotechnology investor, 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.  If the message has value and takes into account the needs of others, and if you are committed to spreading this message, it is more likely to reach many more people than if you were just communicating a message that you were excited about.


[Harvard Business Review]

April 21, 2016 / by / in , ,

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