Made to Stick

Yesterday’s New York Times had this article, “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike,” which quickly became the #1 emailed article on the site.  While a little light, it raises several points that bear reflection. 

First, in discussing the “curse of knowledge,” the difficulty in remembering what the world looked like before you became an expert, I am struck by this as one apt metaphor for culture.  It is so hard to escape from our own ways of thinking, which is why living in another culture, literally becoming a non-expert once again through participant observation, is such a core part of becoming a good cultural anthropologist.  After that experience, or the similar experience of indoctrination into evolutionary theory, anthropologists in general struggle to create knowledge that is useful to people beyond anthropology, to both market it and make it relevant. 

Second, in the context of this blog, the following line rang quite true: “When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.”  That, unfortunately, is the way a lot of anthropologists proceed, which is what makes integrative work like “neuroanthropology” difficult.  As I wrote recently, it is easy to analyze cybercultures from an anthropological perspective, but more difficult to understand why people play games for so many hours or recreate many of the features of “culture” through on-line interactions. 

To break this well-worn path, the point later in the Times article about asking “very, very basic questions” is something we need to do.  What are the basic questions for us to understand?   

I am hoping people will take that up as a theme for the comments below!! 

Finally, the article briefly discusses the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath: “the Heath brothers outline six ‘hooks’ that they say are guaranteed to communicate a new idea clearly by transforming it into what they call a Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story. Each of the letters in the resulting acronym, Succes, refers to a different hook. (‘S,’ for example, suggests simplifying the message.)” 

Sounds cheesy, I know.  So here’s some more description from the Amazon page: “While at first glance this volume might resemble the latest in a series of trendy business advice books, ultimately it is about storytelling, and it is a how-to for crafting a compelling narrative.”  How?  “Drawing extensively on psychosocial studies on memory, emotion and motivation, their study is couched in terms of “stickiness”—that is, the art of making ideas unforgettable.”   

As I have discussed in various posts, for example on everyday design and on video game interactions, this area—where culture, communication, technology, and neurobiology come together—is one where neuroanthropology can help us break out of the tired categories and worn traditions of how to think about and do research, as well as how to design things or communicate ideas.

7 thoughts on “Made to Stick

  1. My first trip to your blog. Very interesting. In coporate training we’re always trying to deal with this idea of stickiness. First, how to get beyond preconcieved ideas and then how to make the new ones stick. You’ll hear the term “stick factor” used from time to time.

    If you have thoughts in this area, you might find some readership at the discussion boards at http://www.ASTD.org. (American Society for Training and Development.)

    Here’s another post and video that describe what I’m talking about http://learningatlightspeed.wordpress.com/2007/12/19/overcoming-beliefs-and-preconceived-notions/

  2. I’m going to have to stick to my own well-worn path.

    Social games bear many similarities to culture because it is culture, or at least a part of one. Culture, being the learned set of interpretation and behavior, is largely born of the interaction we have with other people. It’s how we learn. Any community in which members interact sufficiently will start to develop their own culture. Personally, I think that’s one of the great benefits of studying online communities. It’s a great opportunity to isolate interaction as a cause of cultural development.

  3. Considering that institutions and firms are always bringing in newcomers who must learn the culture in question, it would seem that opportunities to elicit fresh perspectives that might fire innovation are always within reach; so the missing piece seems to me why these opportunities aren’t sought out. I suppose it’s a mixture of how to balance obtaining new ideas with the business of getting things done, but there’s also the more serious issue of how some groups and individuals try to maintain control and power. For all the admiration of the effectiveness of informal learning and apprenticeship, we should not forget that these aren’t just processes by which to produce new, skilled practitioners, they’re also ways to control the flow of knowledge and the terms of participation of social actors in productive endeavors.

  4. Great question, Steve. What do you think?
    One relevant work might be Amartya Sen’s book, Development as Freedom. Here’s the blurb from Amazon: “Sen here argues that open dialogue, civil freedoms and political liberties are prerequisites for sustainable development. He tests his theory with examples ranging from the former Soviet bloc to Africa, but he puts special emphasis on China and India. How does one explain the recent gulf in economic progress between authoritarian yet fast-growing China and democratic, economically laggard India? For Sen, the answer is clear: India, with its massive neglect of public education, basic health care and literacy, was poorly prepared for a widely shared economic expansion; China, on the other hand, having made substantial advances in those areas, was able to capitalize on its market reforms.”

    Diversity and productivity might be organized at levels that we ordinarily don’t consider, but make all the difference in what people can do with their lives. But I am not sure that answers your question…

  5. Sometime I think we do things because we think it’s the right thing to do and may have nothing to do with how effective it is.

    You remember what happened when everyone said the Japanese were going to take over. It was because of teams and quality. I can’t see how diversity had anything to do with it. In fact, conformity is more of the model.

    We have to focus more on diversity because we are’t a homogenius population. This isn’t Sweden.

    I think you sometimes see something similar when they list the traits of a great leader’s. It’s more of a list of how we’d like them to act rather than how they really act.

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