There is an interesting article in the January 2010 Wired called “How Group Think Rules What We Like”. The premise: “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?”
A guy named Duncan Watts wanted to test this. His problem, however, was how to replay history. The example they use in the article is about Madonna: Is Madonna famous because of talent? Or did she just get lucky — right place, right time, etc.? If you replay history over and over, and Madonna gets famous each time, then you would know it’s all about her talent. If not, then you know she just got lucky.
Clever boy, Watts figured out a way to simulate this replaying of history. He made a fake music download site, loaded it with 48 tracks from unknown songs, and got people to download, listen, and rate them. He ran this experiment over and over, with many new groups of people. Each group started fresh, and did their own ratings.
Results: Different songs were hits with different people. A few songs were often (but not always) at the top, and a few were often at the bottom. But there was this whole group of songs that had pretty much random results. Success or failure was random. For the random songs, the researchers concluded: “about half the song’s movement could be attributed to intrinsic appeal. The rest was luck.”
But what about advertising, marketing, and hype? Can you influence the hell out of people into thinking something is popular when it isn’t? They figured out how to test that too:
They took ratings from one group and inverted them. Crap songs became top rated, and top rated songs became poorly rated. They gave this new set of ratings to a new set of listeners. The result? The new group rated the highly rated songs well, and snubbed the poorly rated ones. The conclusion? Straight up lying works. (Fake review sites anyone?)
But… eventually they found that some of the previously top ranked songs started moving back to the top, and some of the previously crap ones started moving back down. In addition, in the “upside-down world”, people downloaded and rated less songs overall. The researchers theorize that this is because the people perceived the ratings to be inaccurate and therefore lost trust the system.
Conclusion #1: “….a cautionary tale to marketers: If you lie about the merits of your product, you might suppress demand across your entire sector..”
Conclusion #2: People will believe anything…. for awhile anyway.
Conclusion #3: People are Sheeple. (But you knew that already, right?)
Group Think, by Clive Thompson