Police Psychology | Viral Infection

Posted: February 25, 2016 in Mastering Effort
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Police Psychology | Viral Infection


There are some things Police Psychology just hasn’t figured out, in fact all of psychology is left puzzled when something goes viral. I was recently sent a video about a VIRAL MARKETING, police psychologywoman who has heard her fiancé was gunned down in the street after a Mardi Gras Parade. She was out of control and causing a ruckus. An officer responded, not with handcuffs but with a hug. It was the most human of responses, and since it was a white officer hugging a black woman in turbulent racial times, you would think it is going to go viral. It’s only gotten about 6,000 views, somewhat short of the 1 million viral standard (which is now 3 million in less than a week).

From the Dancing Baby Cha-cha of the 90’s, to ugly cats, the lip-singing of the Numa Numa video, to the thousands of videos of Hitler parodies from “Downfall”, to the Korean Gangnam Style, to the under 12 obsession with Minecraft, what is it that makes something go viral. What makes something that is not too far from the rest of the pack, stand out. And then, how could we figure out how to do it. Imagine you are trying to sell a book and you get 5 million hits in a week and you could repeat it. Bye, bye police psychology, hello marketing guru.

It Starts with Research

In finance, contagion is when one company makes a trade or a deal that that spreads throughout the industry. It just takes off. The emotional or psychological contagion effect is when a mental condition or emotional states spreads through a number of people. It is also called the Ripple Effect, and has been around way before social media, in fact some say the first viral video was actually a 1930’s movie called “Reefer Madness.” The research dates back to 1959 or so with Schachter’s studies on affiliation. But something going viral is relatively a new thing and usually it starts with the internet and is much more volatile.

Today, we have the ability to spread a piece of news with the click of a button. We can share pictures, videos, personal statements, even jokes and memes in the blink of an eye. This is a fantastic contribution to our world, as we can create a community that extends far beyond our small town or city. For example, many popular YouTubers have vast followings from around the world, from different countries and backgrounds and religions. I was shocked that this blog was being read in 20 some countries without any work on my part to expand yet. However, with this newfound ability comes a pressing question: how can you get noticed among the crowd? Why is it that some news is immediately shared and retweeted and talked about at length, and others gets lost in the cyber world? More importantly: with the sheer enormity of information processed on the Internet every single day, how can you create a viral piece of news to be shared with the public?

The Secret to Viral News Lies in Psychology

Studies suggest that positive content that evokes high arousal emotions is shared more often than other pieces of news. Using contagion, you can spread a piece of news faster. When you get people to feel something, to experience a moment of happiness, warmth, purpose, surprise, or even anxiety, loss, or fear, other people can “catch” those feelings too. Springboard this process by triggering the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls arousal, whether empathy or anger, and that allows for emotional contagion to begin. You need to write a piece of news that gets people afraid either by showing them how they’re doing something wrong, or how they will miss out on a new and improved version of something, that shocks them, that brings them joy or even desire and lust.

Next, Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point said you need to get that out to three different types of people – connectors, mavens and salesmen. Connector are people with a lot of contacts that like introducing other people to each other. Anyone that has met me at conferences suggest I am a connector. It’s not just they have contacts, but they like introducing people. (Of course, since I have gotten up there in age, I introduce people to get out of having to remember their names or what I talked to them about last).

Mavens are people that love information and that others look to for information. They are pathologically helpful and like to share information with others. They are good for viral videos because they help people in the direction and share your information well. I am also somewhat of a maven, except that I tend to have only a little information and pass the person on to others so I don’t have to talk with them. J

Finally there are salesmen who are charismatic people who are good at negotiation and manipulation of people’s wants. My brother is a salesman, in fact spent years selling drugs. Legally that is, and he was always one of the top people in his company when the prizes were being handed out (like trips and such). Of course, he learned how to keep his numbers lower during non-contest times so his numbers would show great improvement. Got to learn the system, apparently all the top people do it. Some combination of these three people and an emotional message lead to something going viral – almost.

Get While the Getting is Good

Well, the last step is the condition has to be ready for it what Gladwell calls The Power of Context. Research has other names for it, but essentially it means the climate has to be right for something and that can change weekly. You need to understand that sometimes things take off just because the world is ready to have a direction told to them. This is where you know your community and no your industry. What is really the key directions people want to go right now?

Now what exactly am I blabbering about and how and why does it affect you. Police psychologists are always facing a little public relations problem. Whether you are doing testing, consulting or therapy, you have an audience, or potential audience and need to make inroads into that audience. As police officers, you also face a public relations problem. Your ability to get something viral in the departments you serve, make it seen by all would be a major boon to your work or the work you want to do. Take for example the therapist, getting a connector to let people know that getting a CISD by the local police shrink actually felt good, could make it viral inside your department. Tell it with a story that creates some emotion. Make it funny! I always say if you can’t hold someone’s attention they will lose your message. If you are an officer and want to get some positive movement, use the viral strategy to let people know cops are human too. Raise emotions, figure out who your connectors are, who the salesmen are and who are the mavens and hope your timing is right.

Unfortunately, the video in the front of this email with the cop hugging a distraught lady may not be seen by millions. It should be. Perhaps we can make it happen. Send it and share it with others. Let’s see what happens.


Blog Administrator: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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