Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Remember Mikey, the kid from those Life cereal commercials in the ’70s? “Hey Mikey, he likes it!” In 1983, the actor who played Mikey was at a birthday party where he ate six bags of Pop Rocks, that fizzy candy, and also drank an entire six-pack of Pepsi. The pressure from the reaction of the two in his stomach caused his stomach to explode and he died! That’s why they stopped making Pop Rocks in the mid-’80s!

As part of their research into what makes ideas stick, Chip and Dan Heath studied reams of urban legends, likely including the one about poor Mikey above. Urban legends are almost never true — the one above certainly isn’t — and yet they prove to be remarkably sticky: I heard about the dangers of Pop Rocks and Pepsi as a child in the early ’80s, and the idea was still alive in 1998, when the movie Urban Legends mentioned “that kid in the cereal commercial” in a scene where a professor tries to convince a student to down a can of Pepsi and a bag of Pop Rocks. According to snopes.com, the candy’s manufacturers sent letters to 50,000 school principals, put full-page ads in 45 major publications, and even sent the product’s inventors on the road in a vain attempt to counteract rumors that were already widespread in 1979.

The Pepsi/Pop Rocks story doesn’t even accord well with common sense — we’re all pretty well aware that our bodies have two very effective release mechanisms for the release of excess gas in the digestive tract. So why do stories like this one continue to circulate after almost 30 years, when far more important information can barely get traction in the popular mind?

What’s Sticky About Pop Rocks?

According to the Heaths, one of the reasons urban legends stick so well is that they are so very concrete. For folklorists, urban legends express underlying anxieties and concerns shared in the culture at large; in the case of Mikey’s tale, we might read it as a reflection of concerns over the popularity of “foods” like Pop Rocks and Pepsi that owe more to the chemist’s lab than to Mom’s kitchen. It is probably also significant that “Mikey” was at a birthday party, that is, among strangers (or at least non-family members); these are the same years that saw the first (always false) rumors of Halloween candy poisonings. But these are abstract concerns, the stuff of academic papers and graduate seminars; people don’t sit around talking about how worried they are about food manufacturing processes or the unfamiliar sources of their kids’ nourishment — they talk about KFC serving rats, McDonald’s serving worms, and, of course, Pop Rocks making kids explode.

These rich details make urban legends compelling for a number of reasons. First of all, they add credibility by telling of real dangers that affected real people — we could, if we wanted, verify the stories at a local library or, these days, the Internet. Not that we do, of course, but the idea that we could seems to be more than enough to make us believe. Second, urban legends — though they don’t explicitly lay out a moral — provide us with a do-able, meaningful course of action: don’t eat Pop Rocks while drinking Pepsi. A story about “some foods” that might be dangerous isn’t all that compelling (think of the US Dept. of Agriculture’s “food pyramid”, with it’s admonishment to “limit the intake of added sugars”); one that tells you, implicitly, that you’ll be safe if you avoid a particular product, brand, or chain is reassuring, even as it frightens us.

The Concrete Brain

Stories with lots of concrete detail also seem to resonate well with the way our brains work. Concrete details allow us to imagine a scene and, crucially, imagine ourselves in it. As some recent psychological research shows, imagining ourselves doing an activity can often have the same effect on us as actually doing it — this has been especially useful in sports psychology, where visualization of exercise processes has been shown to actually stimulate muscle development.

The Heaths use an interesting metaphor to describe the way concreteness engages the brain. Imagine, they ask us, that the brain is like the loop side of a piece of Velcro, and our ideas are like the hook side. The more “hooks” your idea has, the more “loops” it will catch in the brain, making its “grip” that much tighter. (Aside: note how using a metaphor makes the abstractness of neuropsychology much more concrete and graspable!) Careful use of detail, then, provides ideas with more and more hooks: more imagery, more emotional resonance, more personal relevance. It’s not just some kid that got killed, it’s Mikey (or, since fewer and fewer people alive today were around when the commercials originally aired, it might be a friend’s uncle’s boss’s son or a neighbor’s sister’s boyfriend’s little brother, or whomever). We know Mikey, he’s a reminder of our own childhoods; he evokes a rich stew of nostalgia, childhood innocence, and recognition. Further, it’s not just any candy, it’s Pop Rocks; it’s not just soda, it’s Pepsi — both of whose makers have invested plenty in making their brands a part of our individual identity.

Concrete Begats Concrete

It’s not enough, of course, to simply pile on detail after detail to create sticky ideas — if it were, “purple prose” would be the highest compliment, not a dismissive insult. Concreteness relies not so much on the amount of detail, but on providing the right detail for the intended audience. Urban legends work well because they relate to experiences we’ve all had — drinking soda, eating at a fast food outlet, staying in a hotel. The detail is drawn from our everyday experience, and helps to create a vivid, living impression in our minds.

To know what level of detail will work in our ideas’ favor, it is necessary to know who our audience is — to have a concrete image in mind of who our reader, viewer, or buyer is. Many writers, for example, imagine an “ideal reader” whose imagined responses to their work actually guides them in the creation of the work. Marketing companies often do the same thing, developing detailed profiles of their ideal or typical user, and then trying to figure out what this imagined character’s response to a new product or ad campaign would be.

Ideas aren’t just “out there”; to be effective, ideas need to inspire action, whether that’s buying a product, following a leader, voting for a candidate, or accepting an offer. Concrete detail, done well, puts us — at least metaphorically — into situations that demand we take the action desired. By providing the brain with plenty to hold onto, concreteness greatly increases the stickiness of ideas. Do you have any tips to share with other lifehack.org readers about making ideas concrete, or tailoring detail to fit an audience? Share your thoughts in our forums!

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