Can you persuade someone to like a product by telling them that it’s popular? Do teenagers like Taylor Swift because she’s good or because everyone else they know likes her — so hey, she must be good, right?
Sociologist Robert Merton dubbed this tendency to base what we think we think on what other people are doing the “self-fulfilling prophecy” in 1949, and since then social scientists have tried to measure how powerful it actually is. Now, based on some studies conducted with the help of the Internet, it seems clear that we’re often just sheep.
A few years ago, Duncan Watts — a network-theory pioneer and scientist at Yahoo and Columbia University — wanted to test the strength of self-fulfilling prophecies in pop culture. The problem, he realized, was that to really explore the phenomenon you’d have to rewind history. For example, I could argue that Madonna is famous because she’s uniquely talented. You could counterargue that she’s just lucky: She got picked up by the right label at the right time, and enough people glommed onto her. But what if you could replay history with different conditions? If Madonna becomes famous each time, then her success is due to raw talent. If not, it’s just luck.
You can’t rewind history, of course. But Watts devised a clever way to simulate the effect. He and his collaborator, Matthew Salganik, created a music-downloading Web site. They uploaded 48 songs by unknown bands and got people to log in to the site, listen to the songs, then rate and download them. Users could see one another’s rankings, and they were influenced in roughly the same way self-fulfilling prophecies are supposed to work. That meant some tunes could become hits — and others duds — partly because of social pressure.
Watts and Salganik ran the experiment over and over — each time with a new group of people — until they’d gotten 12,900 participants. In essence, they rewound history each time: Every new group started fresh, listened to the same 48 songs, and made up their collective mind.
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