Why Things Catch On: Jonah Berger '98

by Ted Jou '99

After graduating from the Magnet, Jonah Berger '98 went to Stanford, where he earned a Bachelor's in Human Judgment and Decision Making, and a Ph.D. in Marketing.  He is now the James G. Campbell, Jr. Memorial Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and he recently published a book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, which made the New York Times bestseller list. We asked him a few questions about his book and his memories of Blair:

Give us a short summary of what your book is about:

Contagious: Why Things Catch On is about the secret science behind social epidemics; Why some product and ideas catch on and become popular and others fail.  Why does some online content go viral?  Why do some products get more word of mouth?  It’s not luck and it’s not chance.  There’s a science behind diffusion.  Contagious brings together over a decade’s worth of academic research on social influence, bridging science and stories, and sharing the 6 key principles that drive all sorts of products and ideas to catch on.

How did you decide to write this book?  When did you start writing it?  How long did it take?

Ever since I started studying social epidemics, I always dreamed about writing a popular press book.  The Tipping Point was great, and it got many people interested in this space, but it’s more stories than science.  There’s actually very little academic research on why people talk about and share some things rather than others.  So I’ve spent 10 years researching the topic, and finally, a couple years ago, felt we had learned enough that a book could be written.  It took about 6 months to write, but the process as a whole was closer to 2 years.  

When did you start doing research into viral marketing?  How did you get interested in these topics?

I started studying viral marketing about 7 years ago.  I would always see the most emailed list of the Wall Street Journal and wonder why certain articles made the list and others did not.  So I started trying to understand the psychology behind sharing.  Why people pass along one story or rumor rather than another.

How did you become a professor at Wharton?  Was a career in academia your goal when you started graduate school?

When I started my PhD I knew I would probably become a professor, but that wasn’t my career goal when I started college. Originally I thought I would become an environmental engineer.  But after taking a couple classes I realized I loved social psychology.  Understanding why people behave the way they do.  Why we make certain choices and how one person’s behavior can influence another’s. So I started doing academic research in the area.  And I liked that so much that I decided to do a PhD.  Applying the same hard science tools we used at Blair to the social sciences.

You went to both college and grad school at Stanford.  Why did you decide to go there, and why did you stay for your Ph.D.?

I went to Stanford because it was the best college I got into. But I stayed there for my PhD because it was the best place to do the research I was interested in.  It had a lot of faculty working on interesting related questions.

What are some of your favorite memories from Blair?

The students and the teachers.  The other students were just amazing.  You always felt that everyone around you was so smart that it was hard to keep up.  It’s great to see some of the amazing things Blair alumni are doing these days.  And the teachers were fantastic.  Not only were they dedicated to their jobs, but they really knew how to motivate students to explore.  To want to dig deeper and understand the why behind how things work.  Without them I wouldn’t be where I am today.

What did you learn in high school that has helped you in your career?

Never give up.  Being “smart” will only get you so far.  You have to work for it.  Effort and persistence go a long way.

You were in the last class to graduate from the old Blair on Wayne Ave.  What do you remember about that old building?  Have you visited the new Blair?

So many great memories.  Doing the morning announcements for SGA.  Running up and down the stairs in the old gym as part of the wrestling team.  Sitting on the floors in the hallways to eat lunch.  The old computer lab, etc.  Can you believe we had an auto shop?  A shooting range?  The new Blair is great, but the old one had lots of tradition.

What advice do you have for the Magnet Foundation and other groups that are trying to spread a message to support math and science education in Montgomery County and beyond?

The Magnet has made a huge difference in so many children’s lives. And many people support the idea of a strong math and science education.  But when budget cuts come around, it is an easy program to cut.  So just like any other message, it has to be made memorable and contagious. People tend to think that statistics are the best way to make a case. But politicians aren’t computers.  Statistics are easily forgotten. Telling an emotional story about a specific person using concrete is often much more effective.