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Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 3): Concrete

Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 3): Concrete
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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Last Updated on May 17, 2019

    This Is What Happens When You Move Out Of the Comfort Zone

    This Is What Happens When You Move Out Of the Comfort Zone

    The pursuit of worthwhile goals is a part of what makes life enjoyable. Being able to set a goal, then see yourself progress towards achieving that goal is an amazing feeling.

    But do you know the biggest obstacle for most people trying to achieve their goals, the silent dream killer that stops people before they ever even get started? That obstacle is the comfort zone, and getting stuck there is bound to derail any efforts you make towards achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself.

    If you want to achieve those goals, you’ll have to break free from your comfort zone. Let’s take a look at how your life will change once you build up the courage to leave your comfort zone.

    What Is the Comfort Zone?

    The comfort zone is defined as “a behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance.”

    What stands out to me the most about that definition is the last part: “using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance.” How many successful people do you know who deliver a steady level of performance?

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    The goal in life is to continually challenge yourself, and continually improve yourself. And in order to do that, you have move out of your comfort zone. But once you do, your life will start to change in ways you could never have imagined. I know because it’s happening right now in my own life.

    Here’s what I’ve learned.

    1. You will be scared

    Leaving your comfort zone isn’t easy. In fact, in can be downright terrifying at times, and that’s okay. It’s perfectly normal to feel a little trepidation when you’re embarking on a journey that forces you to try new things.

    So don’t freak out or get overwhelmed when you feel yourself getting a little scared. It’s perfectly normal and all part of the process. What’s important is that you don’t let that fear hold you back. You must continue to take action in the face of fear.

    That’s what separates winners from losers.

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    2. You will fail

    Stepping out of your comfort zone means you’re moving into uncharted territory. You’re trying things that you’ve never tried before, and learning things you’ve never learned before.

    That steep learning curve means you’re not going to get everything right the first time, and you will eventually fail when you move out of your comfort zone. But as long as the failures aren’t catastrophic, it can actually be a good thing to fail because …

    3. You will learn

    Failure is the best teacher. I’ve learned more from each one of my failures than I have from each one of my successes. When you fail small, and fail often, you rapidly increase the rate at which you learn new insights and skills. And that new knowledge, if applied correctly, will eventually lead to your success.

    4. You will see yourself in a different way

    Once you move out of your comfort zone, you immediately prove to yourself that you’re capable of achieving more than you thought was possible. And that will change the way you see yourself.

    Moving forward, you’ll have more confidence in yourself whenever you step out of your comfort zone, and that increased confidence will make it more likely that you continue to step outside your comfort zone. And each time you do, you’ll prove to yourself again and again what you’re really capable of.

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    5. Your peers will see you in a different way

    Whether we want to admit or not, people judge other people. And right now, people view you in a certain way, and they have a certain idea of what you’re capable of. That’s because they’ve become accustomed to seeing you operate in your comfort zone.

    But once you move out of your comfort zone, you’ll prove to other people, as well, that you’re capable of much more than you’ve shown in the past.

    The increased confidence other people place in you will bring about more opportunities than ever before.

    6. Your comfort zone will expand

    The good thing about the comfort zone is that it’s flexible and malleable. With each action you take outside of your comfort zone, it expands. And once you master that new skill or action, it eventually becomes part of your comfort zone.

    This is great news for you because it means that you can constantly increase and improve upon the behaviors that you’re comfortable with. And the more tools and skills you have at your disposal, the easier it will be to achieve your goals.

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    7. You will increase your concentration and focus

    When you’re living inside of your comfort zone, the bulk of your actions are habitual: automatic, subconscious, and requiring limited focus.

    But once you move out of your comfort zone, you no longer rely on those habitual responses. You’re forced to concentrate and focus on the new action in a way you never do in your comfort zone.

    8. You will develop new skills

    Moving out of your comfort zone requires that you develop new skills. One of the many benefits you’ll experience is that you’ll be stepping away from the “limited set of behaviors” and start to develop your ability and expertise in new areas.

    Living inside of your comfort zone only requires a limited skill set, and those skills won’t contribute much to your success. Once you can confidently step outside of your comfort zone and learn a new skill, there’s no limit to how much you can achieve.

    9. You will achieve more than before

    With everything that happens once you move out of your comfort zone, you’re naturally going to achieve more than ever before.

    Your increased concentration and focus will help you develop new skills. Those new skills will change the way you see yourself, encouraging you to step even further out of your comfort zone.

    Featured photo credit: Josef Grunig via farm3.staticflickr.com

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