The Ice Bucket Challenge Tricks Your Brain Into Wanting a Frosty Shower

Michael Bloomberg and Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff complete the Ice Bucket Challenge outside company headquarters in New York on Aug. 27 Courtesy Bloomberg

For anyone with a smartphone and two fingers, the Ice Bucket Challenge has been inescapable. Your high school friends doused themselves in freezing water on Facebook, Oprah screamed through a torrent of ice, and Justin Bieber took the challenge twice on YouTube because he messed up the first time.

The ALS Association that supports research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, told the New York Times that it has raised $42 million since July 29. That’s double the donations it received in 2012.

Charity fundraisers are ubiquitous on social media—a budding industry has grown to promote them—but none has had the viral success of the Ice Bucket Challenge. So what made this campaign different? A growing body of research is aimed at uncovering one of the Internet’s enduring mysteries: What makes something go viral?

Social scientists have looked at the psychological motives that drive online sharing, and their research influences how the multibillion-dollar online marketing industry does business. Figuring out what makes the Ice Bucket Challenge so irresistible can help other charities play on the same mental process to attract money to their cause. Here’s what so-called cause marketers should think about as they try to make their issue sexy enough for the digital generation:

1. The chilling shock
One key element, researchers say, is the high-energy reaction elicited by the challenge videos. “It’s funny, but it’s also surprising, and you have an emotional tie to the cause,” says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who studies the science behind viral content. In a 2011 study, Berger and his colleague Katherine Milkman found that New York Times articles which contained an element of surprise, like one about chickens stopping traffic in New York City, were more likely to be among the most e-mailed articles.

2. Pulsing arteries, soaring emotions
Several studies have shown that people tend to pass along highly arousing content, and Berger’s work suggests that’s because it helps them process their own feelings. In a more recent study, Berger had one group of students jog in place for 60 seconds before reading an article online, and found that they were twice as likely to send it to someone than students who didn’t move at all. The implication, Berger said in the study, was that even physical signs of arousal—increased heart rate and blood flow—can make someone more apt to share.

3. Humble-bragging for good
People might also be making the decision to share the video based on a need for social validation, Berger says. “People share things that make them look good, that make them look smart and in the know,” he says. “It’s easy to see other people doing this, whereas with most social causes donations are private.”

4. The celebrity nod
Seeing celebrities endure small waterfalls also helps. Karen Nelson-Field, a researcher at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science in Australia, analyzed 800 videos in a 2013 study and found that the most important factor driving sharing was not content, but marketing.

“When you get into the news feed or the Twitter feed of Oprah Winfrey, it’s like putting a TV ad in the Super Bowl,” says Nelson-Field. “You have access to millions and millions of eyeballs.”

On average, the videos were viewed 24 times before they were shared once. Sharing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Buckets beget more buckets, until everyone is taking a public ice shower. Even your boss.

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