in Economics

Cumulative Advantage

Duncan Watts summed up an experience on cumulative advantage this week in the NY Times, based on the article ($) of a year ago in Science. It’s of importance to anyone in the position of publisher, having to try and select which of many candidates to invest in, as well as anyone scratching their head wondering why Justin Timberlake is so popular.

In our study, published last year in Science, more than 14,000 participants registered at our Web site, Music Lab (, 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. This second group — in what we called the “social influence” condition — was further split into eight parallel “worlds” such that participants could see the prior downloads of people only in their own world. We didn’t manipulate any of these rankings — all the artists in all the worlds started out identically, with zero downloads — but because the different worlds were kept separate, they subsequently evolved independently of one another.

This setup let us test the possibility of prediction in two very direct ways. First, if people know what they like regardless of what they think other people like, the most successful songs should draw about the same amount of the total market share in both the independent and social-influence conditions — that is, hits shouldn’t be any bigger just because the people downloading them know what other people downloaded. And second, the very same songs — the “best” ones — should become hits in all social-influence worlds.

What we found, however, was exactly the opposite. 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. Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words, didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.

  1. I guess everybody loves a winner.

    It’s true in politics too, right? For example, the inevitability of W’s nomination in 2000…

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