9 ways to understand how ideas spread

A reader named Niko, who is working on a PhD in social network analysis, asked me for my favorite sources about how ideas spread:

I am doing a PhD in the field of social network analysis in which I try to determine mutual influence among people who are connected with cell phones. Many times individuals have good ideas but can’t bring them to life due to limited resources or social capital. If we would be able to find the right spot to plant the seed I believe there would be much more flowers on our planet.  know you read a lot and have broad horizon, I wanted to ask about any good source to learn more about the spread of ideas, social contagion and social network analysis in general, may it be from philosophical or scientific perspective.

I’ve read much about the subject, but the strongest sources come from a wide range of fields, as there is no one universal theory for how and why ideas spread.  It’s also interesting that most of these predate social media, as I believe taking a long view is often the most powerful one. Here’s my list:

  • The canonical pop business books about the spread of ideas are Made to Stick and The Tipping Point. These books have a strong marketing focus, and emphasize ideas that are bound to products. They’re both well written and easy to read. Made to Stick is more practical, focusing on a list of attributes to aim for. The Tipping Point is most notable for its identification of the roles certain types of people play in connecting people to ideas (e.g. Mavens).
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Cialdini. Influence takes a wider view of marketing and propaganda, exploring the wider history of how people in power use their power to tilt the playing field to their advantage. Most applicable to politics of the books in this list. Includes exploration of concepts like Reciprocity and Social Proof.
  • Connections, by James Burke. Most books on how ideas spread make it seem as if it’s something people control. Luck and factors outside of anyone’s control play a tremendous role. Connections entertainingly shows how random the spread of ideas can be, and the book joyously makes connections between inventions and breakthroughs that you’d never expect.
  • The Dr. Fox effect. This decades old study demonstrated that even experts are heavily swayed by the charisma of whoever is speaking to them. We are biased towards people we find charismatic, and towards ideas we want to hear (e.g. politicians, salespeople). In the study, an actor played an expert, speaking entirely in jargon and obfuscated language, but who managed to score higher marks in every category than a legitimate expert. You can see an excerpt of the video here.  I wrote about this effect at length in Confessions of a Public Speaker, Chapter 8.
  • The Diffusion of Innovations, Everett. This is the book that defined much of marketing theory for the last 50 years. S curves, early adopters, it’s all here. Ironically many modern books on marketing use these concepts, but don’t acknowledge or seem aware of the source. While the book’s research focused more of the spread of technologies, most of the theory applies well to any idea.
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman. This critique of modern media demystifies how television thrives, and how it has changed our view of the world. It is a harsh critique (as you might guess from the title) and clearly takes the side that television has done more bad than good (or at best, it’s a draw). Postman’s goal was to disarm the negative influences television has for influencing which ideas spread and he succeeds: you won’t watch television the same way again.
  • Jerusalem: One city, Three faiths, Armstrong. What could be more instructive in the history of how ideas spread than a concise review of how religious ideas have developed and spread in the major religions of the West? This fascinating book, centered on the history of a city, walks through the early development of Jewish monotheism, to the birth of Christianity, to the development of Islam. You can see how each religion borrowed from the past (e.g. The Old Testament is really just the Jewish bible), factionalized in many directions, rejected  ideas inherited from the past (often violently), had times of peaceful acceptance of other ideas/religions, condemned things in their own faction that were once accepted, and on it goes. If nothing else it offers how malleable ideas, even ideas born of scripture, are by the forces of culture. (For a more academic and wider take on how religious ideas spread, see History of Religious Ideas, Vol 1, Eliade, or Masks of God: Vol 1, Campbell).
  • How to write headlines that work, Copyblogger. The major medium of today is the web, and the one sentence descriptions that appear on Facebook, twitter, and email, are the first decision points in what ideas we consume or avoid. Headlines an titles are a microcosm of the entire question of how and why ideas spread: how much will you lie or misrepresent an idea to get a click? What emotions do you play on? What tone or joke can you cleverly compress into just a few words? This article by Copyblogger is one of many, but it expresses how little of the quality of ideas themselves determine the fate of the idea.

More broadly, we love to assume the best idea win, especially ideas in our national, cultural or religious history. There’s questionable evidence for this assumption. In The Myths of Innovation an entire chapter explores this myth. In short, self-interest is a huge driver of choice, and what is best for people with influence may not be what’s best for everyone else.

Additionally, the skills for a) having the best ideas and b) being persuasive,  are not related to each other. A charismatic senator might have much worse ideas than his brilliant, but awkward, rival. Given how heavily influenced we are by superficials (see Dr. Fox, above) when it comes to evaluating ideas, the effects of this bias can not be overstated. Or in business terms, a product no one needs that is marketed well, can overcome a healthier, cheaper alternative that fails to excite or compel customers to buy. This should be troubling to everyone interested in progress.

Throughout history, ideas are often chosen for speed and convenience relative to an immediate issue, as their’s little expectation the choice will matter later. But when an idea takes off, they’re hard to change no matter how bad they turn about to be, in part because we love to protect the ideas from our past.

What books or articles should be on this list? Please leave a comment.

15 Responses to “9 ways to understand how ideas spread”

  1. Phil Simon

    I am a big believer that the best ideas do not necessarily win. How many properly trained Shakespearean actors are waiting tables in restaurants while Snooki pulls crazy cash for being a train wreck? How many musicians are struggling and could play circles around winners on American Idol? Ditto authors and books.

    It’s not a meritocracy out there. Never was; never will be.

    1. Niko Gamulin

      Hi Phil,

      I agree with you. The spread of idea depends on the social power of the initiator. And that’s why finding the model for determining social power of individuals in the society might be useful. If we knew which individuals would be the best one to spread the certain idea we could be much more successful when trying to affect the society.

  2. Dave

    Great post. Funny that your “reasons” headline got me to click right away. I’d be curious to see if that post gets more traction than most.

  3. Carly Harrison

    Great post Scott. And great books you mentioned.

    I also loved “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson – while it’s more focused on “idea-evolution” vs. “idea-spreading”, I think it’s worth adding to the list!

  4. Aaron Wright

    If Niko is in interested in the structure and impact of social networks, he should really check out “The Tipping Point”, as you mentioned in the post. I too am fascinated by how things spread through networks, and “The Tipping Point” really clarifies the components of a network that are required for anything to spread. Whether it is a new business idea or a dangerous virus, those same components are always needed in one form or another.

    Also along those same lines is a book called “Virus of the mind”. I forgot the author, but it is actually classified under biology. It gets in to the science of why some ideas stick in our head and others don’t.

    1. Niko Gamulin

      Hi Aaron!

      Thank you for the suggestion. I have read The Tipping Point time ago and tried to use mathematical model to design the price of the service/product in order to spread among the population. It is a good model for the macroscopic level while it is more appropriate to use model for epidemics for microscopic level. Anyway besides the mathematical models it is useful to take a look at the problem from other perspectives as well.

  5. Tim Kastelle

    Good list Scott – I’m especially glad to see Everett’s book on the list. As you say, it’s been hugely influential but isn’t cited or read nearly as much as it should be.

    Since the question came from a network researcher, I would assume that Niko knows about Duncan Watts, but I also think that his ideas are essential in this area. There is a good summary here:


    Also, for Niko, definitely look up Cosma Shalizi, who Watts mentions. His stuff is technical research work, so it isn’t great for everyone to read, but it is exceptionally good.

  6. Scott Berkun

    It’s an interesting question about how much of the Dr. Fox effect applies to TED. I’m a fan of TED and they have done, and do, a great deal of good in spreading good ideas. But are there superficial elements that carry more weight than they should?

    Are there things an event should, or could, do to minimize the negative elements of the Dr. Fox effect?

  7. Rian

    My dissertation was in the field of social network theory as well. One of the core parts of my research was Mark Granovetter’s 1973 paper “The Strength of Weak Ties” (PDF: http://sociology.stanford.edu/people/mgranovetter/documents/granstrengthweakties.pdf). The theory states that because a person with strong ties in a network more or less knows what the other people in the network know (e.g. in close friendships or a board of directors), the effective spread of information relies on the weak ties between people in separate networks.

    Related to that, Ronald Burt’s theory of Structural Holes (Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0674843711/scottberkunco-20/ seeks to apply this to a business context, and is an insightful read as well. He discusses the two main benefits of networks: information benefits and control benefits.

    I think both of these theories are essential in the understanding of influence and how ideas spread. I tried to apply this to Twitter a little bit in 2009 (http://www.elezea.com/2009/09/structural-hole-theory-value-social-media/), but it only scratches the surface. It’s one of those “revisit when you have time” things, since I did my research in 2003, and so much as changed since then.

  8. Ed Winslow

    Richard Ogle, Smart World.

    #SocialEra, Nilofer Merchant

  9. test website

    A further issue is that video games are generally serious anyway with the main focus on mastering rather than enjoyment. Although, it comes with an entertainment element to keep your kids engaged, every single game is generally designed to work with a specific skill set or area, such as math concepts or scientific discipline. Thanks for your posting.

  10. jj

    Cultural Change
     occurs when there are new ideas
     cultures can combine to make a new mix of ideas and creations



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