Turns Out That the Ice Bucket Challenge Was a Hugely Effective Bonding Ritual

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Photo: Jessica Foster

If you were conscious and connected to the internet in 2014, there’s a reasonably good chance that you or someone you loved, or at least were Facebook friends with, participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. George W. Bush had freezing water poured on his head, so did Bill Gates, so did Amy Schumer (kind of). New York Magazine said it was “perfect” as well as “a Medical Disaster.”

It was also – contra to all the hand-wringing about slacktivism – sublimely effective. The always steady-handed James Surowiecki details as much in a new column for The New Yorker: In becoming the fifth-most Googled search team of the year, it also raised lots of awareness for ALS. It reportedly raised $220 million for ALS organizations around the world. Though dismissed as a fad, the Challenge’s effects have endured: Post-Challenge, annual contributions to the ALS Association are up by 25 percent (and signaling the power of branding, an ice bucket is proudly displayed on their homepage), with the average donor age going from over 50 years to 35. It’s a marketer’s icy wet dream come true: With the viral content, they’ve reached the Youngs.

The challenge also gives a fascinating case study of what we’re talking about when we talk about viral content. Surowiecki talks with anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas, who describes the Ice Bucket Challenge as an example of the human behavior he studies: extreme ritual. Xygalatas, who’s attached heart-rate monitors to Spanish villagers as they walk across fiery hot coals, finds that risky rituals create and reinforce social bonds (the family members of fire walkers, for instance, exhibited way greater heart-rate synchrony than strangers). In a post-modern, social-media-y sense, the Ice Bucket Challenge is kind of like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain: the physical danger of the ordeal (buckets filled with ice are heavy,throwing heavy things on your head hurts) creates a bonding effect for the people that have done it and for the people that are watching it. It’s a principle illustrated in fairly nuts field experiment that Xygalatas did: he set up a mobile lab for devotees that had just completed kavadi, a Hindu pilgrimage where you pierce your skin and bleedingly walk your way to a temple – to donate to charity. He found that the people who had undergone the pain or joined in the procession were more giving than a control group. Similarly, rather than taking from other charities, the Ice Bucket Challenge may have expanded the amount of giving for everybody – as evidenced by 6 percent increase in individual donations in the US in 2014. The hardship of the bucketing seems crucial: as Xygalatas asked in an essay on Aeon, “would a ‘drink a cup of cocoa’ challenge work as well?” throwing heavy things on your head hurts) creates a bonding effect for the people that have done it and for the people that are watching it.

It’s a principle illustrated in fairly nuts field experiment that Xygalatas did: He set up a mobile lab for devotees that had just completed kavadi, a Hindu pilgrimage where you pierce your skin and bleedingly walk your way to a temple — to donate to charity. He found that the people who had undergone the pain or joined in the procession were more giving than a control group. Similarly, rather than taking from other charities, the Ice Bucket Challenge may have expanded the amount of giving for everybody — as evidenced by 6 percent increase in individual donations in the U.S. in 2014. The hardship of the bucketing seems crucial: as Xygalatas asked in an essay on Aeon, “would a ‘drink a cup of cocoa’ challenge work as well?”

This isn’t in the Surowiecki piece, but the Ice Bucket Challenge also looks like a clear example of what epidemiologists call “social contagion.” Lots of human behavior is transferred from the people that we’re close to: We either want to impress them, mimic their behavior, or have some score to settle. Research indicates that people quit smoking, become obese, and shoot or get shot by guns via social contagion. When you have some of the most influential people on earth doing something for a good cause that your friends and family are also doing, that looks like a highly contagious activity. Like Surowiecki notes, the only real problem with the Ice Bucket Challenge is that nobody’s been able to replicate it.