Fidget Spinners – Why they’ve gone viral

“Daaad. Can eye have a fidget spinner? Please?”

Said my kids, and an estimated 2 million other kids last week.

This is something I haven’t seen in a long time. Sure, there have been several fads over the past couple of decades, but not like this. The biggest selling toy of all time–the Rubik’s Cube–sold approximately 350 million units. And now this… wow. This might be coming close.

So. Why have these things gone viral. Can we explain it?

To understand why fidget spinners have gone viral, we need to start with the basics: why things go viral. Most research in this area has looked at emotions. Simplistically, content that activates strong emotions gets shared, and the sharing causes it to go viral. More precisely, emotions activate physiological arousal (stop sniggering quagmire, psychologists use the word arousal differently), which in turn stimulates the amygdala (part of the brain), which controls social behaviour (gets people sharing).

Ah-ha! So fidget spinners activate emotions right? And that causes them to go viral right?

Kind of. Lets dig a little deeper.

Here’s the thing – SOME emotions activate arousal, and some don’t. It’s usually the strong ones that influence sharing (terror and intense excitement are two that get people blabbing pretty quick). Fidget spinners activate intrigue (try one – you’ll see). The question is: is intrigue an emotion? And if it is, –is it strong enough to activate this Amygdala thing, and kick something off to go viral?

Amazement is the gold standard when it comes to making something go viral, but it’s terribly difficult to activate.

To answer the first question: No, intrigue is not an emotion, it’s a feeling. A feeling is more complex, and may involve several emotions interacting. This is why not all things that are intriguing go viral — put simplistically, there are different types (complexities) of intrigue -some work, some don’t.

Intrigue starts with uncertainty, which activates curiosity, which creates apprehension (mild fear), which leads to amazement. It’s actually the amazement that causes the viral effect, not the uncertainty, and not the curiosity. Amazement is the gold standard when it comes to making something go viral, but it’s terribly difficult to activate. So how does the fidget spinner do it?

Usually intrigue is too mellow to activate sharing. But when the process of uncertainty and curiosity is prolonged, it results in apprehension and awe, that leads to amazement. That’s the key. The problem is prolonging the curiosity phase long enough so that apprehension and awe can develop (amazement) – that’s the tricky part.

To understand how to prolong curiosity to activate amazement (and thereby viral sharing), we have to revisit old school research on negative emotions.

For a long time, psychologists have understood that people tend to feel better about a negative experience after they share the story with others (usually people share negative emotions with people  close to them). It’s an old clinical psychologist’s trick – get the patient to re-live the negative experience to get them on the road to recovery. Why? Because the overwhelming anxiety experienced after a negative episode is caused by the negative experience running through the person’s head in a constant cycle. They can’t stop thinking about it, it’s emotionally exhausting, and the replay of emotions causes ongoing distress. The brain replays the experience over and over because of uncertainty.

Human’s are biologically programmed to make sense of their surroundings (actually a survival mechanism). Like when you’re lying in bed at night and you hear a noise–probably you’re not gonna get much sleep until you get up and check it. Your brain needs to make sense of it and close the story. Traumatic experiences replaying in someone’s head is the brain working in overdrive to make sense of what happened — to close the story.

Fidget spinners prolong the curiosity in young minds by keeping the story open. Kids are particularly susceptible to this process, since they haven’t yet developed the skills to resolve the uncertainty that leaves the intrigue hanging. Their minds can’t make sense of what is happening in a fast way, and as a result uncertainty and curiosity lead to apprehension and awe, and ultimately amazement. The amazement activates sufficient arousal to activate the Amygdala. Endorphins and dopamine are released (another survival response funnily enough), which leads to social sharing between young minds.


Happy spinning.

Fidget spinner

Fidget spinner