Imagine that you are going to meet two groups of people. You don’t know anything about their background or their ages. You only know the names. The first group includes Florence, Mildred and Ethel. The second group includes Emma, Olivia and Isabella. Which group do you think is older?
If you guessed the first set, you’re probably right: These names ranked among the most popular baby girl names in the US from 1900 to 1910, while the second set included some of the most popular choices from 2010.
Popularity trends cycle over time. From names to clothes to music, it’s a good bet that what’s trendy today will be unfashionable a decade from now. but why? Although most people can intuitively distinguish calm from outdated, the psychological and social dynamics that drive fads have remained much more difficult to understand.
A recent study was published in psychological review It aims to highlight those dynamics, using common baby names as a cultural trend for analysis through mathematical models. The study focused on two opposing – but not separate – psychological drives: our desire to fit in with our peers and our desire to be unique.
If we only had a craving for compatibility, we’d expect everything that’s popular—baby names, a certain piece of jeans, or a certain style of music—to remain more or less popular over the decades. On the other hand, if we just want to be special, we would expect a social world in which there is very little consensus about what is great: everyone will try to distinguish themselves from the group.
In the real world, groups of people try to strike an optimal balance between these two drives. In other words, most people play a social game where the goal is to find the right place where we broadcast a great identity but it is not weird. Something interesting happens when you try to mathematically design this game: over time these two opposing impulses tend to converge and find equilibrium, with social groups achieving an equilibrium that remains mostly constant, with no new fad emerging.
But this is clearly not how our social world works (as shown, for example, by the evolution from bell-bottom jeans to baggy jeans to skinny jeans). So what is the missing factor? To find out, the authors behind the recent study used a game theory model that incorporated motivations for exclusivity and compliance in different types of social networks.
Complex social networks
The researchers found that in very simple social networks, a few neighbors routinely monitor each other and try to be the same. And slightly different from the other, balance tends to emerge. For example, Neighbor A can look at Neighbors B and C and make decisions that make his identity similar to his own with his neighbors with a perfect dose of uniqueness. Others can do the same and no new trends will emerge.
But once social networks are scaled up to represent more complex and realistic societies, the vast majority of models have shown that equilibrium does not occur. Random and permanent change in fashion is what you would expect, because neighbors cannot monitor every neighbor in this large community playing the “game” of achieving optimum excellence. Complex social networks leave room for randomness, giving rise to new fads.
One intriguing question that the study did not aim to explore is how these dynamics might play out between Distinguished social groups. (The models only analyzed what appeared to happen within a particular social group, and assumed that people within those groups were only comparing themselves to other members within the same group.) How, for example, might people in the punk music scene change their behavior based on identity-based decisions. of a country club audience would be a question for a different study.
On a broader note, the study highlights the idea that the social game of balancing exclusivity and conformity is one we may not be able to opt out of, as Americus Red 2, Professor of Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania big thought.
“I’ve heard a lot of people respond and say, ‘I’m not interested in brands,'” Reid II said. ‘I have a very different view. In some ways, they do nothing different than a person affiliated with a brand does. They have a brand. It’s just anti-branding.”