Getting Good Ideas to Spread

This article was co-authored by Joe Brewer and Lazlo Karafiath

Pick any of the great challenges confronting humanity today and ask yourself “Is the quality of public discourse good enough to address it?” You’ll find that for every single issue — be it global warming, resource depletion, chronic poverty, or what have you – the conversation is failing us. We simply are not elevating the ideas that we’ll need to save ourselves from collapse and ruin.

Luckily, this is a problem that can readily be solved. At its core, it is an issue of (1) determining which ideas are poised to spread and which are not; together with (2) an understanding of which ideas we will need to spread in order to implement solutions that can scale. If we can figure these two pieces out it will be sufficient to spread vital innovations that can protect us from systemic harm.

Sounds simple enough, right? Then why aren’t we doing it? Partly, the answer is that many people still don’t understand the basics of meme science. We don’t realize that the spread of ideas can be studied in the same way that we research the spread of diseases in a population of people. You are all meme researchers when you watch your friends’ internet memes spreading on Facebook. All you need to do is realize that every one of us is an idea propagator. Herein lies our true power to transform the world. The absence of this realization — and the empowerment it creates –is what has kept past approaches taken by advocates of sustainability, social justice, and shared prosperity from reaching tipping points and all the sweeping changes that follow.

But of course, there’s more going on than the fact that people aren’t aware of the cultural analysis tools that would reveal important insights about the spread of ideas. Until recently there just wasn’t a way to track the dynamics of ideas in society. This shortcoming is now being remedied by the rise of the internet and the practices of crowdsourcing. We are drowning in a flood of data streams from Twitter, Facebook, mobile apps, government databases, and other pools of information that can be mined to reveal patterns of thought and behavior.

It is in this new mix of social sharing and data analytics that we can finally begin to track the spread of ideas in a rigorous way. The fields of research that enable us to do so include:

  • Network Science :: Studying relationships between and across pieces of information, be it social connections or system feedbacks.
  • Complexity Research :: Exploring of the inherent dynamic features of systems that change in a nonlinear fashion.
  • Evolutionary Biology :: Discovering of the way information spreads from one generation to the next in biological and social systems.
  • Signal Processing :: Revealing patterns in the noise that tell us how changes arise and spread in dynamic systems.
  • Cognitive Semantics :: Combining insights from psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics to reveal how ideas “stick” in the mind and arise as patterns of thought/behavior.

As fields such as these continue to mature, we are able to take an integrative approach to the study of culture and reveal the meme landscape that determines which ideas are ecologically “fit” and distinguish them from those ideas that cannot survive. This is like the work of a gardener who prepares the soil with the right mix of water, nutrients, temperature, and sunlight to encourage desired crops to grow. We can now begin to do the same thing for human culture.

So what might it mean to help good ideas grow and spread? First we must figure out what it means to be a “good” idea. In the general parlance of meme theory, an idea is good if it is able to stick and spread. But what is good for an idea may not be good for people. The qualities that enable an idea to spread can have no correlation with harms and benefits to their hosts. This is why our social worlds can be dominated by unhealthy ideas — the notion that what is good for the environment is bad for the economy, as one example; the thought that a finite planet can support infinite growth as another — so we need to apply the rigors of design thinking to the analysis of memes and become enlightened at the cultural level about which ideas are good for us and which are not.

Again we are in luck. It just so happens that concepts for morality have been extensively explored in the field of cognitive semantics (an area of expertise for one of the authors, Joe Brewer). Those ideas that reflect a biologically realistic understanding of health and well-being are what is good for us. It is good to be well fed, to have an ample supply of drinkable water, and to live in safe and supportive communities. We know these things and more about the science of human thriving. And so we can take frameworks like that of human security and the psychology of resilience as foundational building blocks for separating the cultural wheat from chaff.

We are living in a period of great turmoil, as the challenges mentioned above attest, and yet we also find ourselves in the midst of great opportunity. The tools are now available to envision and implement human-appropriate designs for urban planning, market development, resource management, energy production, and much more. All that remains is for us to begin.

This is exactly what we are doing with our Climate Meme Project as as starting point for prototyping and field-testing the solutions that humanity will need to make the global transition to security, prosperity, and sustainability.


Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.