Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

He was dead the whole time! Darth Vader is Luke’s father! She’s his sister and his daughter!

The endings of movies like Sixth Sense, The Empire Strikes Back, and Chinatown — and the stories that lead up to them – stick with us for years and even decades because they trigger a deep psychological reflex: surprise. They come at us out of nowhere (seemingly – repeat viewings tend to reveal dozens of clues) and literally force us to sit up and take notice.

Psychologists see surprise as something akin to the “fight or flight” reflex. The typical expression associated with surprise – rigid body and widened eyes – signals the mind’s desire for more information. We stop still and take it all in.

Breaking Patterns

In order to be truly unexpected, an idea has to break the preconceived notions and routines that we live our lives by. Trivial changes go unnoticed or, when noted, quickly forgotten. In order to evoke surprise, an idea has to interrupt our established ways of acting or thinking – as the surprise endings of the movies listed above force us to reconsider the meaning of the whole movie. Sixth Sense is a movie about a psychologist’s relationship with a child, up until the very end, when it… isn’t.

Unexpected ideas, then, demand some action from their recipients; they ask us to change our view of the world, or at least some part of it. There is, of course, a danger here – ideas that should be surprising become expected when overused. 9/11 was truly unexpected – and the events of that day will stick with us for a long time. But now that we’ve been on heightened security alert for going on six years, does it surprise anyone to find that the threat level for US flights as I write this is “Orange: High Risk of Terrorist Attacks”? There is no longer any information contained in that statement – it’s always orange. What should be a sticky idea indeed has instead become merely the status quo, the expected.

Hook ‘Em and Reel ‘Em In

Surprise helps make ideas sticky in two ways. First, it gets our attention – we notice the unexpected in a way we don’t notice the expected. Think of your drive home from work: how many times have you arrived home with almost no recollection of anything you saw on the way? Can you remember what color the car in front of you was? But if a three-car pileup or high speed pursuit should happen to take place, I’ll bet you have something to talk about when you get home!

Second, surprise keeps us engaged. Once we notice something unexpected, we experience a powerful urge to understand it, to integrate it into what we already know. The Heath’s call this “The Gap Theory of Curiosity”, drawing on the work of behavioral economist (didn’t know there were behavioral economists, did you? Surprise!) George Loewenstein, who holds that gaps in our knowledge, once exposed, cause us discomfort and pain.

We’ve all directly experienced this, of course – I remember well the agony of waiting three whole years to find out if Darth Vader was really Luke’s father. Mystery novels, movie trilogies, serial fiction, and potboilers rely on this need to keep us coming back or turning the pages. The new Harry Potter novel is approximately a million pages long, but you just keep turning and turning, page after page, chapter after chapter, all in a quest to find out “what happens next?”

Using Surprise

Knowing how people react when surprised can help us make our ideas stickier. Knowing that people will pursue a piece of information once it gets their attention, we can “prime the gap” by introducing a surprising fact and promising an explanation. Your local evening news does this all the time, with their teaser commercials during prime time. “Is something in your cabinets killing you? Find out at 11!”

Priming the gap doesn’t have to be sleazy, though. Imagine a teacher telling their students something surprising to get and keep their attention through the class period. TV news spots are sleazy not because they use surprise, but because they use it in the service of the trivial (if it were really important, what moral right in the world would they have to withhold it? Image “Are terrorists attacking our town right this moment? Find out at 11!”) They trigger our need to know – if Loewenstein is right, they actually intentionally cause us pain – in the service of getting us to sit through a bunch of commercials before finally paying off with a useless, stupid piece that tells us absolutely nothing.

Simply Unexpected

The power of the Heath’s Made to Stick is how the six principles of stickiness interact with each other. No idea need satisfy all six principles, but the more the better, and when two or more principles come together in one idea, they reinforce each other, multiplying the stickiness factor.

Consider, yet again, Einstein’s famous formula. I said last week that the simplicity of Einstein’s formula, summing up one of the great mysteries of the world in 5 symbols E=MC2, made it sticky. But it also made it unexpected – who would have thought that the nature of mass and energy could be summed up so simply? Its simplicity itself was surprising, energizing decades of research in an attempt to prove Einstein was either right or wrong – and then to explore the ramifications of the idea. Scientists are still working on the implications of Einstein’s theory of relativity, a century later – now that’s sticky!

How have you, or could you, use the unexpected in your own work? It probably won’t surprise you to see me ask you to share your own ideas in the forum — but overlook that and do it anyway.

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