Why Do Bad Ideas Spread So Easily?

Bad ideas can spread much more easily than good ones.

Why? Well as Seth Godin has said no one truly “gets” your idea unless:
a. the first impression demands further attention (it’s interesting)
b. they already understand the foundation ideas necessary to get the new idea (it’s not overly complex)
c. they trust or respect the originator (it’s believable)

This helps explain why online ideas spread so fast as they’re often interesting, simple and believable. But none of that means that they are good.

In a world of complex problems – it’s understandable why people reach for ideas that sound like easy solutions.

In the past week the UK Government launched it’s anti-obesity strategy which includes urging GPs in England to prescribe cycling as part of a new drive to tackle obesity in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A trial for a similar scheme in Yorkshire concluded in November 2019 with positive outcomes. More than 61 per cent of participants in the trial reported their fitness had increased and more than one-third continued to cycle regularly after the 12-week programme had concluded.

From an innovation perspective it’s a huge leap from one pilot to national roll out but the scheme has all the makings of a spreadable idea. Interesting. Simple. Believable.

Time will tell whether it solves the problem but you can almost see the knee jerk mental dots being joined: Fat people = lazy, Cycling = good and relatively cheap, Doctors = Trusted. Combine all three and we are sorted.

But of course, obesity is a complex issue and there are many interconnected reasons people may be overweight, one of which is poverty.

As Naomi Davies wrote in response to my post on constantly looking for problems “My fear is we conflate obesity with mental models of laziness and work avoidance and attack a problem that does still exist …but pushes us towards solutions that have little impact & can be harmful.”

These mental models (many of which are prejudices that we all hold) help spread ideas quickly. I reckon I could sell an idea quite easily to encourage the poor to buy bags of potatoes, or even grow their own, rather than spend money in chip shops. However the premise is deeply flawed – and would be destroyed by effective problem definition.

One other factor that helps spread a bad idea is something we have a lot of at the moment: panic.

Panic and anxiety are both born from fear, and are not necessarily bad things. Fear is the oldest survival mechanism we have, it encourages us to take action and helps us learn to avoid dangerous situations in the future through a process called negative reinforcement.

However , the short term innovative tactics we saw in the early days of the pandemic like getting people to work from home, changing medical and care practice at short notice, cannot be used to solve complex problems that require deeper consideration, evidence and testing.

These logical ideas are slowed by taking the time to process evaluate and reevaluate. Emotional responses are immediate and not slowed by thought. Right now a lot of our companies are super high on emotion and low on logic. We don’t like living with uncertainty so we rush to solutions – manna from heaven for the spread of bad ideas.

The notion that good ideas automatically trump bad ideas is totally untrue.

So it’s important to understand how bad ideas spread as you can use the same tactics to spread your good ideas.

  • Make your idea interesting – what is the problem it’s solving and how and why are people’s lives going to be better or easier as a result? This should certainly not be a report more like something that would fit on Twitter. It should demand further attention.
  • Make it as simple as possible to understand – or build it upon things people are already familiar with. If your idea is about helping tackle climate change or sustainability for example – most people have a basic grasp of this issue. Use a picture of that turtle with a plastic straw up its nose and everybody gets it.
  • Make it believable so consider who pitches the idea. It needs to be the most trusted or passionate person you can find. Put your ego aside – it doesn’t have to be you.
  • Don’t panic. Dumbed-down emotional ideas spread faster than logical ideas, but bad ideas crowd out the good. Do you want your company working on loads of ideas or a couple of really great ones?

Never underestimate ideas. The health of our society and that of future generations depends on us all making ill-conceived, bad or just plain stupid ideas unfit for those who spread them.


Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

Published by

Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

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