Ever wonder what causes some ideas to take off or, in today’s language, become “viral”, while other ideas fizzle from the start? Some researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles wanted to find out so they set up a study to explore what they call the “buzz effect”.
In the study, 100 student participants were asked to act either as “interns”, pitching a prospective hit TV show, or “producers”, evaluating the pitched ideas. Using MRI technology, the researchers performed brain scans on the “interns” as they listened to potential ideas to pitch to the “producers”. Those who were ultimately the most successful in getting their ideas accepted by the “producers” showed more activity in certain areas of the brain on the scans. Furthermore, the scans showed that getting excited by an idea activated certain “reward” regions in the brains of all the “interns”, but those who successfully convinced the producers to pick their show ideas also showed activity in the areas of the brain that are responsible for strategizing and planning, deemed “the salesperson effect” by the researchers.
The MRI brain scans showed the brain activity in real time, and the fact that this activity was recorded at the exact time that they heard the idea is crucial. It shows that the instant a “buzz worthy” idea hits the brain, our brain tells us that the information is important AND that it should be passed along to others. Once that happens, it causes a sort of chain reaction, and the person hearing the idea becomes a better proponent for the idea, increasing the likelihood that the idea will become contagious for the next group of people who hear it, and so on. What’s really interesting is that this brain activity is evident even before a conscious decision is made to pass along the information.
So how did the researchers actually measure a successful idea? According to the published findings in the Psychological Science Journal, successful ideas were associated with neural responses in the communicator’s mentalizing systems when they first heard the messages, prior to passing them along. Similarly, individuals who were able to spread their own views to others produced greater mentalizing-system activity during initial testing.
Mentalizing, or the ability to place ourselves inside the minds of others to think as they think, seems to hold the key to passing along these “buzz worthy” ideas. The ability to empathize hinges on mentalization because we have to place ourselves in the “mental shoes” of another to envision what he or she is seeing or feeling. It therefore makes sense that mentalization would be an integral part of whether we pass along ideas, as we are envisioning how others would react to those ideas.
The studies into this area are just beginning and as more and more ideas go viral, there will certainly be more studies to come on the subject. One thing is certain; the connection between the brain’s mentalization network and contagious ideas is fascinating.