Looking for the Fire not the Smoke: How the Social Brain Helps Us Understand Contagion

David Penn


Contagion is one of the hottest topics in marketing right now, and it's tempting to believe that it's a recent phenomenon – born in the age of the internet and social media. Yet people have always shared information and copied ideas; what's new is that Facebook, Twitter and all the rest have allowed us to share knowledge on a scale and at a rate undreamt of in the pre-internet age. It's also tempting to believe that contagion is caused by the conversations (word-of-mouth) that people have with each other. After all, what we see is A talking to B, who talks to C, and pretty soon we have a contagious effect. Word-of Mouth1) certainly tells us a lot about how ideas spread, but what does it tell us about why they do so? In this paper we look for the reasons why some ideas catch fire whilst others fizzle out, and why some ideas are so 'numinous' (or awesome) that they capture our collective imagination.