Idea Habitats: How the Prevalence of Environmental Cues Influences the Success of Ideas


Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, Mail Code 4840, 518 Memorial Way, Stanford, CA 94305. E-mail:


We investigate 1 factor that influences the success of ideas or cultural representations by proposing that they have a habitat, that is, a set of environmental cues that encourages people to recall and transmit them. We test 2 hypotheses: (a) fluctuation: the success of an idea will vary over time with fluctuations in its habitat, and (b) competition: ideas with more prevalent habitats will be more successful. Four studies use subject ratings and data from newspapers to provide correlational support for our 2 hypotheses, with a negative factoid, positive rumor, catchphrases, and variants of a proverb. Three additional experimental studies manipulate the topic of actual conversations and find empirical support for our theory, with catchphrases, proverbs, and slang. The discussion examines how habitat prevalence applies to a more extensive class of ideas and suggests how habitats may influence the process by which ideas evolve.