Social Transmission and Viral Culture

  • Berger J
  • Milkman K
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People often share news, opinions, and information, and social transmission shapes both individual behavior and collective outcomes. But why are certain things more viral than others? An analysis of over 7,500 New York Times articles published over six months suggests that individual-level psychological processes (e.g., emotion) act as a selection mechanism on culture, shaping what becomes viral. Even controlling for external drivers of attention (e.g., the time an article spent on the Times homepage), awe-inspiring articles are more likely to be among the newspapers most e-mailed stories on a given day. Practically useful, surprising, positive, and affect-laden articles are also more likely to be viral. The magnitudes of these relationships are considerable. These results underscore the importance of considering how individual-level psychological processes shape collective outcomes such as the transmission and prominence of culture.

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  • Jonah Berger

  • K L Milkman

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