Buzz. Marketers, senior managers, business owners, and consultants crave it for revenue. Career-minded individuals engaged in self-promotion also want it.
Another term for buzz is the “salesperson effect.”
For the first time, we learn how ideas are spread, what messages go viral on social media, and how to predict it. Buzz – the desire to spread messages – is created by regions in a person’s brain, according to a 2013 study by UCLA psychologists.
“We’re constantly being exposed to information on Facebook, Twitter and so on,” said the study’s senior author, Matthew Lieberman in a news release. “Some of it we pass on, and a lot of it we don’t. Is there something that happens in the moment we first see it – maybe before we even realize we might pass it on – that is different for those things that we will pass on successfully versus those that we won’t?”
The researchers are excited by the broad range of implications. The research could lead to more effective public health campaigns, more persuasive advertisements and better ways for teachers to communicate with students.
“Our study suggests that people are regularly attuned to how the things they’re seeing will be useful and interesting, not just to themselves but to other people,” said researcher Lieberman. He’s a UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and author of the forthcoming book “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.”
“We always seem to be on the lookout for who else will find this helpful, amusing or interesting, and our brain data are showing evidence of that. At the first encounter with information, people are already using the brain network involved in thinking about how this can be interesting to other people. We’re wired to want to share information with other people. I think that is a profound statement about the social nature of our minds.”
“Before this study, we didn’t know what brain regions were associated with ideas that become contagious, and we didn’t know what regions were associated with being an effective communicator of ideas,” said lead author Emily Falk, who conducted the research as a UCLA doctoral student in Professor Lieberman’s lab and is currently a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
“Now we have mapped the brain regions associated with ideas that are likely to be contagious and are associated with being a good ‘idea salesperson.’ In the future, we would like to be able to use these brain maps to forecast what ideas are likely to be successful and who is likely to be effective at spreading them,” she added.
In the first part of the study, 19 UCLA students (average age 21), underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans as they saw and heard information about 24 potential television pilot ideas.
Among the fictitious pilots — which were presented by a separate group of students – were a show about former beauty-queen mothers who want their daughters to follow in their footsteps; a Spanish soap opera about a young woman and her relationships; a reality show in which contestants travel to countries with harsh environments; a program about teenage vampires and werewolves; and a show about best friends and rivals in a crime family.
The students exposed to these TV pilot ideas were asked to envision themselves as television studio interns who would decide whether or not they would recommend each idea to their “producers.” These students made videotaped assessments of each pilot.
Another group of 79 UCLA undergraduates (average age 21) was asked to act as the “producers.” These students watched the interns’ videos assessments of the pilots and then made their own ratings about the pilot ideas based on those assessments.
The research could lead to more effective public health campaigns, more persuasive advertisements and better ways for teachers to communicate with students.
The psychologists found that the interns who were especially good at persuading the producers showed significantly more activation in a brain region known as the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), at the time they were first exposed to the pilot ideas they would later recommend.
They had more activation in this region than the interns who were less persuasive and more activation than they themselves had when exposed to pilot ideas they didn’t like.
The psychologists call this the “salesperson effect.”
“It was the only region in the brain that showed this effect,” said researcher Lieberman. One might have thought brain regions associated with memory would show more activation, but that was not the case, he said.
“We wanted to explore what differentiates ideas that bomb from ideas that go viral,” Falk said. “We found that increased activity in the TPJ was associated with an increased ability to convince others to get on board with their favorite ideas,” said Ms. Falk. “You might expect people to be most enthusiastic and opinionated about ideas that they themselves are excited about, but our research suggests that’s not the whole story. Thinking about what appeals to others may be even more important.”
The TPJ, located on the outer surface of the brain, is part of what is known as the brain’s “mentalizing network,” which is involved in thinking about what other people think and feel. The network also includes the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), located in the middle of the brain. The DMPFC has a strong emotional component.
“When we read fiction or watch a movie, we’re entering the minds of the characters – that’s mentalizing,” said Professor Lieberman. “As soon as you hear a good joke, you think, ‘Who can I tell this to and who can’t I tell?’ Making this judgment will activate these two brain regions. If we’re playing poker and I’m trying to figure out if you’re bluffing, that’s going to invoke this network. And when I see someone on Capitol Hill testifying and I’m thinking whether they are lying or telling the truth, that’s going to invoke these two brain regions.”
By further studying “mentalizing,” the neural activity in these brain regions to see what information and ideas activate these regions more, psychologists potentially could predict which advertisements are most likely to spread and go viral and which will be most effective, the researchers said.
“The explosion of new communication technologies, combined with novel analytic tools, promises to dramatically expand our understanding of how ideas spread,” said researcher Falk. “We’re laying basic science foundations to address important public health questions that are difficult to answer otherwise – about what makes campaigns successful and how we can improve their impact.”
As we may like particular radio DJs who play music we enjoy, the Internet has led us to act as “information DJs” who share things that we think will be of interest to people in our networks, Professor Lieberman said.
“What is new about our study is the finding that the mentalizing network is involved when I read something and decide who else might be interested in it,” he said. “This is similar to what an advertiser has to do. It’s not enough to have a product that people should like.”
Agreed. If you scroll down, you’ll see Napoleon had a simpler explanation.
UCLA is California’s largest university, with an enrollment of more than 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university’s 11 professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer 337 degree programs and majors.
(Full disclosure: I attended UCLA’s Executive MBA Program.)
From the Coach’s Corner, certainly this article is high brow stuff. Here are less scientific articles:
Insights – Why Marketers Should Show Moderation in Digital Communication – Businesses will decrease their chances for customer loyalty and repeat business if they don’t act with more self-control in digital marketing, according to a study.
Journalists Reveal How the Digital Age is Transforming Their News Coverage – The Digital Age has widespread implications for journalism, and how and why news is published. Just how much digital technology affects the distribution and consumption of news is revealed in the “Oriella Digital Journalism Study.”
“The herd seek out the great, not for their sake but for their influence; and the great welcome them out of vanity or need.”