Paul Kedrosky points to a fascinating study that was written about in the New York Times magazine this weekend (it figures that the one time I put aside the mag without reading it, it will have a fascinating story in it), which looked at the theory of “cumulative advantage.” This is also known as the Matthew effect — from the bible passage Paul quotes in his post — or the “rich get richer” effect.
Simply put, the theory is that if someone is popular — for whatever reason, be it real talent or just blind luck — he or she is likely to become even more popular, since people tend to gravitate towards things that are already perceived as being popular. In the study that is written up in the NYT magazine, a team set up a website where more than 14,000 participants signed up and were asked to listen to, rate and — if they chose — download songs by bands they had never heard of. Some of the participants saw only the names of the songs and bands, while others also saw how many times the songs had been downloaded by previous participants.
The results showed clear evidence of cumulative advantage, says one of the authors of the study:
In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition.
At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict.
As the author notes, this kind of social influence — which might as well be called the Digg effect — “didnâ€™t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.” And that definitely complicates the tendency to believe in the wisdom of crowds when it comes to music or just about anything else.
“Even if you think most people are tasteless or ignorant, itâ€™s natural to believe that successful songs, movies, books and artists are somehow â€œbetter,â€ … if only because â€œthatâ€™s what the market wanted.â€
What our results suggest, however, is that because what people like depends on what they think other people like, what the market â€œwantsâ€ at any point in time can depend very sensitively on its own history: there is no sense in which it simply â€œrevealsâ€ what people wanted all along.”