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Video: Contagious Stories

  • Julie Fox
  • Slice of MIT

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“I had a view of the economy being buffeted by a string of epidemics of various sorts, but usually not of the disease sort,” explained Nobel laureate Robert Shiller SM ’68, PhD ’72, Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University, in a recent Faculty Forum Online. “I’m thinking of narrative epidemics where ideas that are embodied by stories are contagious and travel from person to person and have some of the same dynamics that we see in viral disease epidemics.”

During the webinar, Shiller talked about his 2019 book Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events. He discussed the epidemiology curve and the way that it can model the viral nature of narrative—using as an example the video of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which quickly spread globally and ignited a series of protests and demonstrations. “I think because of the contagion rate of this narrative, it’s going to change our society—let’s hope for the better.”

Shiller noted that when it comes to a narrative going viral, whether or not it is supported by facts, it still can have a huge economic impact. One such case was the panic over potential shortages that made toilet paper nearly impossible to buy during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shiller also answered questions from the live audience of MIT alumni about the impact of social media, how to decipher what narratives are true, and what factors determine the contagion rate of a narrative.

The talk was moderated by David Rotman, editor at large for MIT Technology Review.

Watch more archived Faculty Forum Online webinars, and register for upcoming MIT Alumni Association virtual programming.

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