THE BLOG

My Q and A With Jonah Berger, Author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On

02/10/2015 04:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2015

Contagious: Why Things Catch On established Jonah Berger as a thought leader on a subject with big implications for the future of media: why we share. As The Huffington Post launches What's Working, an editorial initiative to double down on our coverage of positive news and solutions, I asked Jonah, a Wharton Business School professor, for his insights. Here he offers his thoughts on the future of positive news, technology's role in the spread of ideas and the powerful emotions that drive us to share.

You write about the power of a conversation piece to create buzz and bring people together. What do conversation pieces appeal to in us?

Humans are social animals, and sharing connects us with others. First we sat around the fire, then we stood around the water cooler and now we forward things around on social media. The location has changed, but the underlying motivations remain the same. Sharing is social grooming. It not only transmits information; it deepens our emotional connections.

Why do people want to share news of any kind? What is it that makes us want our friends and family to know something we've just found out?

There are six key factors that drive people to share, and in Contagious I put them into an acronym called "STEPPS." That stands for "social currency," "triggers," "emotion," "public," "practical value" and "stories." We want to help others, for example, so the more practically valuable or useful news is, the more likely we are to share it. When we care, we share, so the more a story evokes certain emotions, the more likely we are to pass it on. We also share things because they make us look good (social currency), are top-of-mind (triggers), are observable (public) or are impactful.

"Zeitgeist" is a German word almost untranslatable into English, but we know there is such a thing. And in the world of business, when brands tap into it, they have the wind at their backs. What have your studies taught you about the meaning of "zeitgeist"? What is the zeitgeist, and how does it form?

The zeitgeist is the school of thought that characterizes a particular time period, or a style or way of thinking that may be in vogue. It's when a diverse group of people all see things the same way. On a smaller scale, getting something to catch on isn't about being a strong leader; it's about building a social movement, about generating enthusiasm in a group of people.

"Disruption" is probably the most overused business term of our time, but when used correctly, it captures something very important. Where does disruption fit into Contagious?

Getting something new to catch on requires disrupting the status quo, shifting away from the standard way of doing things and pushing a new idea into the world.

Are we living in a time that's hospitable to ideas that can really make the world better?

Ideas have the power to change the world. And we live in a time when technology can make once-impossible ideas a reality.

What's the difference in how people react to and share positive vs. negative news?

The more positive a news story is, the more likely it is to be shared. Certain negative emotions like anger or anxiety also increase sharing, but overall, positive things are more likely to be shared. Articles that inspire awe, generate excitement or make people laugh are particularly likely to be shared.

How has technology changed the way people share news?

Technology has allowed people to share news faster and more broadly than ever before. With the click of a button, people can share a story to hundreds if not thousands of people. But technology has also changed where people get their news. Traditional media outlets used to be the central source, but social media now plays a much larger role. Our social ties determine what stories we learn about and think are important.

How can the media help readers increase their sense of awe and wonder for the world?

Awe is a powerful emotion. It broadens our horizons, boosts life satisfaction and encourages people to help those around them. That's why it's so important that the media include these types of stories in what they report. Sharing amazing scientific discoveries, triumphs against adversity or heartening stories about the world not only makes people feel good; it encourages them to overcome perceived barriers in their own lives.

I'm asking you to step outside your role as a scientist for a moment: Have your findings made you question the way those of us in the media are doing our jobs?

If no one tells a story, did it really happen? The media is a gatekeeper. There's no objectively "right" answer about what is newsworthy and what isn't, but the news determines public perceptions: what issues people think are important and how they perceive the world. And if you look at front-page news at the moment, you'd have a pretty (negatively) skewed view of the world: much more failure than success.

There's still widespread reluctance in the news business to go beyond "If it bleeds, it leads." What will it take for the media to make this shift?

Measurement drives behavior. While the notion that "if it bleeds, it leads" might have made sense at one point in time, hopefully the new digital metrics that have come along will encourage media companies to shift their attention. Shares, shares per view and other metrics show that bleeding leads won't drive engagement.

You're a scientist, of course, but is there also a moral current to your work when it comes to the power of positive news. Do you think a stronger focus on what's working can bring about real change in the world?

Bringing about real change requires two things: the tools to make things better and the belief that change is possible. Focusing on the negative helps people see gaps or room for improvement, but without understanding what is working and the positive things people have been able to achieve, it's hard to know how to fill in those gaps or be motivated to do so. Not all news is positive, and there is still an important place for unpleasant truths, but it's also important that news reflect the positive things that are going on as well.