Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 3): Concrete

By | August 20, 2007

class=”photo”> class=”figure”>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 pxsbox.com readers about making ideas concrete, or tailoring detail to fit an audience? Share your thoughts in our forums!

Go ahead and admit it. You have said things before that you wish you hadn’t—and wanted to take back. Right? Sure, we all have.

It’s part of human nature. Sometimes we get so emotional about something that we forget to think before we speak. It’s like something paralyzes our rational and logical brain, and in the process, our emotional brain lets words come out of our mouths that never should have.

However, some people do it more regularly than others. And if you want to learn how to think before you speak, you have come to the right place.

But first, let’s talk about the 11 reasons why you should think before you speak.

Some people may have been taught by their parents to think before words come out of their mouths. But many others have not. If you are in the latter category, then you will want to seriously think about these very important reasons why you should think before you say something you shouldn’t.

1. Your Words Reflect Who You Are

When I was growing up, my mother taught me and my sisters not to use swear words. I thought she just wanted us to be lady-like, but there was an even deeper reason.

Sure, being lady-like is a nice thing. But beyond that, she was teaching us that the words you use determine your character. They affect not only yourself but also how people perceive you and what kind of person they think you are.

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2. Words Have Power

I’m sure that you are aware of the politically correct language movement. Basically, it’s changing words to nicer ones.

For example, back in the 1970s, people used to use the word “retarded” to describe a person who was mentally slower than average. But since then, people have started using it as an insult. So, over the years, we have adopted different words and phrases like “special needs.”

The point is that if you make the words nicer, then they will not hold as much negativity.

3. Words Can Hurt (or Help) People

As I mentioned, words have power, and part of this power can be good or “evil.” What you say to a person can hurt them—emotionally and mentally.

And even though the saying goes “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” it is not true—words DO hurt. But they can also help. So, it’s important to make sure that the words you use help people instead of hurting them.

4. Your Emotions Can Make You Say Things You Don’t Mean

I’m sure you’ve been angry at someone and said something that hurt them. And after you calmed down, you might have thought, “gee, I didn’t mean it like that.”

You see, when you are angry, it shuts down the logical part of your brain and then your emotions rule yourself. And then when the emotional part of your brain doesn’t act as a filter for your words, you might say things you don’t mean.

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5. You Might Have Assumed intention on the Other Person’s Part

You might be upset at someone because you thought they had intentions to hurt you. Then, as a result, you might lash out at them because of it.

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But not everyone has the intention of hurting you. Sometimes, people say things that are interpreted as the opposite of what they intended. So, make sure you talk with them to see what they actually mean before you assume anything.

6. You Might Be Overreacting

When we think someone said or did something hurtful to us, our emotions tend to go through the roof. Our automatic instinct is to explode.

But that could very well be an overreaction. As I stated above, you should instead make sure that what they said warrants your emotional outburst because many times it doesn’t.

7. Your Relationship With Other People (or Situation) Doesn’t Warrant Your Words

It’s one thing to explode in anger to your sibling, best friend, or spouse, but it’s another thing to do it to your boss or another superior. You need to assess whether you are about to say is appropriate for the kind of relationship you have with a certain person.

By the same token, you also need to think about the situation. If it’s a time, say, when you are at work or a company party, then it’s best to keep your mouth shut and talk later.

8. You Might Be Judging Too Harshly

Too many people judge others before they’ve heard the whole story. It’s easy to jump to conclusions, get angry, and say things that may or may not be true.

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If you automatically start criticizing and judging another person, they are going to get defensive. And when that happens, more negativity ensues, and the conversation (and relationship) can get ugly.

9. Words Can Destroy Relationships

Speaking of relationships, the more negative words that are spoken to another person over time, the more it damages them—and also the relationship between the two of you.

Think about it—would you want to stay with someone who was constantly calling you names and saying mean things? Of course not! Your words could absolutely destroy your relationship.

10. Words Can Affect Other People’s Actions

Let’s say you are angry at your 10-year-old daughter and you call her “fat” without thinking about it. Well, this is something that she may carry with her for the rest of her life, especially if you say it often.

She could easily become anorexic or develop some other problem. She may turn to self-loathing and start cutting herself. Words are long-lasting and affect other people’s actions.

11. You Can Never Take It Back

Once you say something, it is out there forever! You can never take it back. Sure, you can try, but it won’t work.

Taking back what you say is like trying to put air back in a balloon—it doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter how much you try, it won’t change the fact that those words are out there—forever.

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What Should You Do Now?

Now that you know the reasons why you should think before you speak, how can you do that? It’s easier for some people, while others find it nearly impossible.

First, you should wait at least 5 or 10 seconds before you say anything, especially when you feel upset or angry. If you can’t keep your mouth shut, then an alternative is to just leave the room or situation. This way, you will prevent yourself from saying anything that you will regret.

When you pause for those few seconds or leave the room, you need to think about whether you have a good point to make.

Are your comments relevant, appropriate, or helpful? If not, perhaps you shouldn’t say anything.

Before you speak, consider the other person’s feelings. How will it affect them? Believe it or not, it will. And if you do find that said something that you didn’t want to, then you need to apologize and take personal responsibility for your actions and words.

Finally, don’t forget to learn from your mistakes! We’ve all said things that we regret. It happens. But the difference between people who do it all the time and the people who don’t is that the ones who don’t have learned not to do it and now know how to do it better.

Final Thoughts

If you find it difficult to think before you speak, don’t beat yourself up over it. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive for positive change.

Empathy is key—think about how your words affect others. You want to be a positive influence on other people, not a negative one. So, make sure you choose your words wisely—you won’t regret it!

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