On our preference for positional success over absolute success

A few year ago, students at Harvard University were asked to make a seemingly straightforward choice: which would they prefer, a job where they made $50,000 a year (option A) or one where they made $100,000 a year (option B)?

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Everyone should take option B. But there was one catch. In option A, the students would get paid twice as much as others, who would only get $25,000. In option B, they would get paid half as much as others, who would get $200,000. So option B would make the students more money overall, but they would be doing worse than others around them.

What did the majority of people choose?

Option A. They preferred to do better than others, even if it meant getting less for themselves. They chose the option that was worse in absolute terms but better in relative terms.

Excerpt from: Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

On the importance of successes and failures

Other people conjecture based on case studies and anecdotes. Because so many of the most popular YouTube videos are either funny or cute — involving babies or kittens — you commonly hear that humor or cuteness is a key ingredient for virality.

But these “theories” ignore the fact that many funny or cute videos never take off. Sure, some cat clips get millions of views, but those are the outliers, not the norm. Most get less than a few dozen.

You may as well observe that Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Bill Cosby are all famous and conclude that changing your name to Bill is the route to fame and fortune. Although the initial observation is correct, the conclusion is patently ludicrous. By merely looking at a handful of viral hits, people miss the fact that many of those features also exist in content that failed to attract any audience whatsoever. To fully understand what causes people to share things, you have to look at both successes and failures. And whether, more often than not, certain characteristics are linked to success.

Excerpt from: Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger