Social marketing: why some ideas spread faster?

This post is a reflection on this article (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/07/29/130729fa_fact_gawande).

It is worth adding that in the 19th century even simple proposals of behavior change could face ferocious opposition, as in the case of the Austrian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis: based on his observations and experiments, he proposed simple hand-washing as a way to avoid the great percentage of deaths in child births. He died without his simple idea being adopted and only at the dawn of the 20th century would the doctors change their minds and practices. It was indeed a simple action but nevertheless it did not spread fast as other ideas. In other words, even simple and doable was not enough at that time.

With the social and cultural development in the 20th century (or the increasingly dissemination of the scientific memeplex, to use a memetics approach), especially in the Western countries, there would be more room to facilitate the spread of simple propositions of behavior.

But the article clearly shows that throwing information at people or telling them what to do was (is) not enough and was (is) even counterproductive. In my view, the important points in the examples are the astounding power of the human social drive when properly activated; how to build self-efficacy (Bandura´s classic contribution); and the need to create a warming and trusting environment if one wants a critical behavior (especially behaviors that involve several steps) to be really internalized – a central tenet (backed by ample evidence) of Self-Determination Theory (by Deci and Ryan).

Regarding some modern behaviors that involve great uncertainty and/or have diffuse benefits in the future, like health prevention and green behaviors (someone appropriately called global warming “armageddon in slow motion”), I don´t see these approaches as sufficient, especially when dealing with resistant audiences (if we are thinking downstream, of course). I feel we need to resort to other conceptual tools (like identity) as well as complementary approaches (technology and choice arquitecture spring to mind). Upstream approaches, like media advocacy, seem also to be key.