UCL News


The secret of popularity

9 August 2004

Cynics who claim that fashion and fad are meaningless may have been proved right by a UCL researcher.

Dr Alex Bentley of the Institute of Archaeology has gathered an international team to investigate a mathematical model of cultural transmission. The team's research has shown that the popularity of some dog breeds, pop music albums and baby names is down to random copying rather than the intrinsic value or symbolic importance of our choices. The popularity of dog breeds follows a mathematical distribution

The little black dress and the name Josh may appear to have 'something special' about them which justifies their current popularity, and it may seem obvious that the mullet hair cut went out of fashion for a good reason. Not so, say the researchers. Their analysis of the popularity of baby names, pop album sales, dog breeds and the line-and-dot decorations on ancient clay pots has demonstrated that the rise and fall of trends in all of these areas follows a neat mathematical distribution that is predicted by a random copying model.

This distribution pattern is called a power law, a mathematical formula seen in many areas of life, explained Dr Bentley: "Power law distribution is the pattern that shows predictable imbalance, in that there will always be a few things that are very popular and many that are unpopular. You can see power laws everywhere, in nature and economics. For example, wealth distributions often very nearly follow a power law, meaning that a few people in society always have a big chunk of the wealth, while many have little money."

Other factors besides random copying affect popularity, said Dr Bentley. Celebrity is one factor that can influence popularity of a name or fashion, although not always in an obvious way. For instance, you might think that the name Britney would soar in popularity with the pop singer's rise to fame. But in fact, Britney was the number three name in the USA in 1995, and the name sank in popularity to number 37 in 1999 when Ms Spears released 'Baby One More Time'. Britney's downward trend has continued, and by 2003, the name was only 211 in the popularity stakes. On the other hand, certain dog breeds experienced surges in popularity with the celebrity effect. After a re-release of '101 Dalmatians' hit our cinemas in 1985, the spotted pooch soared in popularity beyond what could occur by random copying.

If his research results have left you feeling a little cynical, Dr Bentley insists that although random copying puts fashion into perspective, it does not undermine the value of creative endeavour: "The random copying model also has people constantly innovating with new ideas, although we can't predict which ones will succeed."

Dr Bentley's work is part of the AHRB Centre for the Evolutionary Analysis of Cultural Behaviour, established by Stephen Shennan, Professor of Theoretical Archaeology at UCL. His research colleagues on random drift are Dr Matthew Hahn of the University of California Davis and Dr Hal Herzog of Western California University.

To find out more about the centre use the link below.

AHRB Centre for the Evolutionary Analysis of Cultural Behaviour