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.