Epigenetic Rules of Adoption

In a 2007 talk at the Long Now Foundation, Alex Wright, author of ‘Glut’,  discussed the evolution of Information Systems. In his talk, he made an interesting observation that networks seem to naturally give rise to hierarchies as information sources and needs become more complex – both at the cellular level and at the human/cultural level. In addition, there seems to be an Epigenetic Rule (see A.O. Wilson) that humans naturally gravitate towards a 5 level (+/- 2?) taxonomy. All human created taxonomies (e.g. living things, environments, mathematical systems, markets etc.) that have been studied look like they naturally evolve to have approximately 5 levels. This five level classification mechanism appears to be a natural mechanism of humans dealing with the complexity of the world.

It is interesting to note this observation and to see how, if indeed it is true, it could be used to understand the adoption dynamics of new-to-the-world offerings, in other words, what are the factors that cause something new to be adopted or not. There are many hierarchical models of human behavior, motivations and needs, the most famous being Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What is being speculated upon here (and it is just a speculative hypothesis at this point) is slightly different. What if humans tacitly formed in their minds a hierarchy of experiences? An experience is different than a need or a motivation. The experience (remembered or anticipated) is the generator or cause of a need (or desire) and the ultimate motivation underlying behavior. People’s anticipated and remembered experiences are what ‘create’ the underlying emotional need or desire. Recent research[1]  has shown that replaying experiences is something people do all the time (often inaccurately) to contextualize something new and, presumably, determine if they will ‘like’ it. An experience hierarchy (or more accurately a layered experience network) could represent levels of experiential meaning with the lower layers representing more ephemeral and rapidly changing experiences and the higher levels representing enduring and slowly changing experiences. This would be inherently different than Maslow’s hierarchy but potentially more useful to those trying to innovate by attempting to understand unmet needs and desires.

Epigenetic Adoption

Figure 1 – Layered network of experiences instead of a pyramid of needs

The concept of an experience hierarchy is compatible with recent discoveries in neuropsychology and neurophysiology and theories on consciousness that posit a major function of the brain as a pattern matching engine that ‘replays’ and ‘fills-in’ experiences – either real or imagined. It is different, and in many ways more comprehensive than the traditional need hierarchies.

In this ‘layered, hierarchical, network’ model, a new experience (actual or anticipated) is located at the ‘proper’ place within the experience hierarchy. This can happen in one of two ways. If the new experience is close enough to an existing one, then it can become a part of an existing experience node. If the new experience is sufficiently different than an existing one, then a new experience node can be created. The concept of the hierarchy is that new experience nodes are much more easily created at the lowest levels of the hierarchy than at the upper levels and that this model explains people’s adoption of new things that create new experiences and their adaptation to these new experiences. The level in the experience hierarchy corresponds to how difficult it is for us to adapt to a new experience.

Of course this brief explanation leaves unsaid a myriad of details (what is an experience node, what does a ‘close’ and a ‘distant’ experience mean, etc.) but even in its most primitive form it can be useful for explaining, modeling and predicting adoption dynamics of new to the world offerings that create new experiences. Take, for example, the adoption of Twitter. After an initial slow start, the use of Twitter exploded as people realized that it was a near ideal means for them to have an experience they were already familiar with and valued – being ‘in’ on interesting facts, rumors, opinions and beliefs that others thought interesting. Regardless of whether or not Twitter satisfied an unmet need or did a ‘job’ that people wanted done, one could predict that the adoption and adaptation barriers to Twitter would be low based on assessing the experience hierarchy and where the ‘Twitter experience’ fit in. The difference of the new experience – ‘accessing people’s immediate thoughts through electronic, mobile and immediately accessible means, instead of with a phone call, blog, TV show or otherwise – was a very small experience step for most people.

More work clearly needs to be done on the experience hierarchy model if it is to be practically useful as a tool or metric of innovation. It does look promising, however, as a potential means to explain why some things ‘catch on’ while others struggle to gain critical mass. In this respect, it complements the traditional innovation diffusion models[2] by positing a direct role of experience, and the epigenetic taxonomy of experiences, as drivers of adoption.


[1] Antonio Damasio. “Self Comes to Mind”; Dan Ariely, “Predictably Irrational”; Jeff Hawkins, “On Intelligence” to name just a few

[2] Everett Rogers, “Diffusion of Innovations”;


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