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4/9/14 Which Messages Go Viral and Which Ones Don' t - Srini Pillay - Harvard Business Review 1/1
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Which Messages Go Viral and Which Ones Dont
by Srini Pillay | 12:00 PM April 8, 2014
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 senders 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?
Lets 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 brains 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 audiences 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.