Consumer Psychology

Impression Management – The Psychology of the Viral Ice Bucket Challenge

Okay, so why has the charity Ice Bucket Challenge* become the viral sensation of Summer 2014, recruiting over 20 million views and a million participants including celebrity pop, screen and sports stars – Lady Gaga, LeBron James, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Oprah Winfrey?

The Ice Bucket Challenge is basically video chain mail – you receive a video, make your own version of it, and pass it on.  And the psychology of chain mail is instructive.  Chain mail is all about incentives, minimum believability and low costs

  • Incentives – we are motivated by positive promises (like getting rich) and negative threats (like getting bad luck)
  • Minimum Believability – we don’t need to fully believe the promise/threat – but we need to believe it could possibly be true
  • Low Costs – the cost of participation (time, effort) should be low enough to make the ‘possible’ outcome worth the investment

So how does chain mail psychology play out in the Ice Bucket Challenge?  In a word (or two) – Impression Management.

Impression Management is the term psychologists use for how we manage our public image through self-presentation – consciously and unconsciously

The Ice Bucket Challenge and Impression Management

  • Positive Incentive – Participate and you’ll enhance the impression others have of you (celebrity association, ‘good’ charitable person), Don’t participate and you’ll have the negative incentive (disincentive) of damaging your public image (kill-joy, ‘bad’ uncharitable person)
  • Minimum Believability – celebrities, professionals in managing their public image are doing it, so it must work!)
  • Low Costs – it’s Summer and it’s water, and we all have smartphones

So if you want to create a craze, remember it’s all about impression management, and you’ll need to set up an incentive structure, create minimum believability and minimise costs for participation. Add some celebrity sparkle – and you have the blueprint for a viral hit!

*If you haven’t received the Ice Bucket Challenge yet, here’s a quick refresher.  You’ll get an online challenge from a friend or acquaintance, and within 24hrs you’ll have to post a video of yourself pouring a bucket of ice water on your head and challenge others to do the same – and then make a donation to a charity – ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in the US and Macmillan Cancer Support/Motor Neurone Disease in the UK,  Digital celebs who have participated so far include Tim Cook, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.


Chartered psychologist specialising in consumer behaviour, wellbeing and technology. Certified CX professional experienced in Design Thinking. A researcher, writer and speaker, Paul is head of Digital Insight at SYZYGY.

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