In 'Sticky' Ideas, More Is Less

By Barry Schwartz,
a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less"
Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

By Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Random House. 291 pp. $24.95

"If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." So said Mother Teresa, and she was right. For a variety of reasons, some of them recently documented in laboratory studies by research psychologists, people who are either left cold or are overwhelmed when confronted with the suffering of thousands will rush into action when they are presented with a way to save one starving child.

"Made to Stick," by brothers Chip and Dan Heath, is an attempt to explain this peculiar fact and many others like it. Why is it that some ideas "stick," remaining vivid in memory and calling on people to act, whereas others just fade away? Is it in the nature of the ideas themselves, or does it have something to do with how they are "packaged"? And if the latter, are there lessons to be learned about packaging that will help people who are trying to influence public opinion and action?

The brothers Heath are in a good position to write such a book. Chip, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford, has actually done research on what makes ideas "sticky." Dan is co-founder of Thinkwell, a textbook company whose aim, of course, is to find a way to present information to students in a way that "sticks." And they have written a fine, "sticky" book -- one that lays out the determinants of stickiness; illustrates them with vivid examples from disparate settings (e.g., business, education and effective social movements); warns us of obstacles that must be negotiated if ideas are to be sticky; and provides a set of "idea clinics," examples of good ideas presented in not so good ways, along with steps to make them better.

The reader also learns some important principles of modern psychology: about how memory is organized, about how emotion affects action, about how knowing too much can get in the way of effective communication and about the power of stories. Anyone interested in influencing others -- to buy, to vote, to learn, to diet, to give to charity or to start a revolution -- can learn from this book.

The Heaths identify six core ingredients of stickiness, organized by the acronym "SUCCES." To stick, ideas should be Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotion-evoking and embedded in Stories. Each of these key features is illustrated with several examples. "It's the economy, stupid," James Carville's famous guide to Bill Clinton's campaign for president, embodies simplicity: "If you say three things, you say nothing" was Carville's point.

The willingness of Nordstrom employees to gift-wrap items purchased elsewhere is an example of the unexpected -- the extraordinary service Nordstrom offers its customers. So was JFK's promise, out of the blue, to get a man on the moon.

Teacher Jane Elliott of Riceville, Iowa, made racism concrete to her white, third-grade students on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination by dividing up the class by eye color and making the division matter. Scientist Barry Marshall made credible to a disbelieving audience of his peers that ulcers are caused by bacteria by ingesting said bacteria and developing the symptoms of ulcers.

A charity called World Vision applied Mother Teresa's lesson by inviting First World people to "adopt" specific Third World children, each with a name, a face and a story. And TV producer Roone Arledge got people who didn't know the shape of a football to become sports fans by having his sportscasters tell one triumph-over-adversity story after another about the players, just as Subway, thanks to TV commercials dramatizing the weight loss of Jared Fogle, got Americans to think about fast food as diet food.

I find the Heaths' analysis convincing and their recommendations quite helpful. I think I will be a better teacher if I keep SUCCES in mind when preparing materials for my classes. But at the same time, the very power of their story is troubling. For there are three other features of ideas that, to my mind, ought to be affecting their stickiness: Ideas should be socially beneficial, or Worthwhile; they should be Important; and, above all, they should be True (which is not the same as credible). SUCCES needs to be modified by WIT. Most of the examples discussed in the book have WIT, but this, I think, is the product of well-chosen examples.

The tools of SUCCES in the hands of WITty people will serve us well, but these same tools, in the hands of mean-spirited people or charlatans, will do us in. We will be misled, misinformed and steered off course. In addition, as more people become SUCCESful, it will grow increasingly difficult for the WITty successful people to rise above water in a sea of bad, trivial, sticky ideas.

The Heaths are mindful of this problem, though they don't address it directly. First, one of the things that initially piqued their interest in sticky ideas was "urban legends," pretty much all of which are sticky but false. It isn't the stickiness of "ulcers are bacterial" that distinguishes it from urban legends; it's the truth value. Second, the Heaths acknowledge that their advice may cheapen the currency when they point out how it isn't enough to say that something is "unusual" anymore; it has to be "unique." To put it another way, "unusual" just isn't unusual enough to cut it anymore. And when everyone around you is applying SUCCES, you will have to exaggerate, distort or even lie to be noticed.

What can we do to make the idea of global warming stick? I thought that in "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore (unlike "Brownie") really did a heck of a job. Was it good enough? I have my doubts. And if not, is it because the thought of one-tenth of the world's people under water wasn't sticky enough or because we've already got too many ideas stuck to us already? Without some WIT to modulate SUCCES, I'm afraid we'll all end up drowning.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company