Bryan Caplan  

Pseudo-Fads: A Puzzle

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When people suddenly start changing their behavior in the same direction, economists presume that prices have changed. If we see that people are driving bigger cars, our knee-jerk guess is that the price of gas has fallen.

But there is a competing family of explanation: fads. If people like to copy other people, then we should expect behavior to change in the same direction even when prices stay the same. If some people start driving bigger cars on a whim, maybe other people will copy them, and away we go.

Alex Tabarrok recently linked to NameVoyager, a fascinating and user-friendly website about historical naming statistics. It is easy to verify that parents change their naming behavior in a correlated way: my parents' names were very popular in the '30's when they were born, and aren't popular any longer. And since we don't have to pay more for popular names, the explanation probably isn't changing prices. (Admittedly, there could be less obvious prices; Adolf dropped out of the top 1000 names in the 1930's).

So the explanation must be fads, right? I don't doubt that it's part of the story. But there are two counter-examples glaring me in the face. My wife and I picked the names Aidan and Tristan for our twin sons in 2002 in large part because we thought other kids wouldn't have the same ones. And what happened? The names almost instantly became more popular. Aidan lept from #311 in the '90's to #40 in 2004. Tristan went from #148 in the 90's to #116 in 2004. And I've talked to other parents with the same experience. They pick names they think are distinctive, but soon learn that they are unknowingly part of a big social wave.

I call this a "pseudo-fad." It looks like a fad on the surface. But if you study it more closely, you learn that at least a lot of people are acting independently, or actively trying not to copy others.

How is a pseudo-fad possible?

You might think that a common cultural shock hit us around the same time. Tristan was Brad's Pitt's character in Legends of the Fall, but that movie came out in 1994. It's a little hard to believe that this cultural shock incubated for eight years, then exploded. Then again, the name's frequency only moved from 600 per million to 850 per million, so the shock doesn't have to be large in absolute terms. Aidan is a bigger puzzle - it went from 200 per million to 2400 per million. And for the life of me I can't figure out why.

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The author at The Dead Parrot Society in a related article titled Pseudo Fads writes:
    Brad Caplan at Econlog wonders about popular behaviors that seem to arise spontaneously by agents not consciously trying to emulate one another. Pseudo fads. Let's say that you are at the place called "Start" and want to get to the place called "Finish... [Tracked on June 26, 2005 9:05 PM]
COMMENTS (13 to date)
Alex J. writes:

Aidan Quinn is an actor who was also in Legends of the Fall.

Also, John Corbett's (sympathetic) character on Sex in the City was named Aidan.

dcpi writes:

On Aiden ... Think Sex and the City!!

dsquared writes:

There's a whole sociological literature on this. If you had really wanted to give your sons names that other kids didn't have, you could have used a random number generator to give them a series of vowels and consonants. Or indeed called one of them "Adolf" and the other one "Judas".

What you actually wanted to do was to give them a name that was quite-but-not-very-uncommon. And you did that by picking out of a bundle of names that were in the mental category "quite-but-not-very-uncommon". That category is socially constructed. It's also (apparently) quite frighteningly possible to manipulate this sort of socially constructed common-knowledge information.

The trouble with this is that when you apply it to choices more generally, you get something which looks very like JK Galbraith's view of economics.

Ian Lewis writes:

A good rule of thumb (at least for naming girls) is to choose a name that is very common amongst women aged 25-35. Most women want their daughters to have pretty, but distinctive names. So most of them choose a name that is different. But that means a name that is different from their generation, not the one being born.

Ryan Breen writes:

People on the fringe like to give their children names that they think no one else has picked. It seems possible that, with enough people doing that, the names could jump up in popularity simply because they aren't popular.

BH writes:

Heh. We named our son Aidan in 1999, thinking it was a pretty obscure name. We knew of Aidan Quinn, but hadn't seen Sex in the City. Couple o' years later, we are starting to see Aidans popping up all over the neighborhood. Very peculiar.

Paul N writes:

I hope everyone here has read Levitt's stuff on why names become popular.

If you add up the different spellings of Aidan (i.e. add Aiden, Adan, Aden, Aydan, which are all in the top 1000), it's the 6th most common boy name. If you add up all the "-aden" names (aforementioned Aidan variants, plus Jayden, Braden, Kaden and their variants) they combined are more than twice as popular as Jacob, the most common boy name.

Since roughly 40% of all boys' names now end in "n", I have dismissed them out of hand for my children.

Almost all names have waves of popularity, but I hope I'm not the only one that disagrees that picking fringe names ensures that the name will become popular in years soon to come. There are hundreds if not thousands of names that people recognize, but have never (and will never) make it to the big time. I think that you're retarded if you deny the aesthetic appeal of names in parents' choosing them, and simply attribute future popularity to current lack of popularity.

What's interesting to me is that the availability of name popularity data for free on the internet is a big change from 10 years ago, and should really change the dynamics of name cycling, because almost every parent considers their child's name very carefully. For example, people might not name their child Jacob if they knew it was the most popular recent boy name.

I agree that it's slightly embarassing that Bryan chose a name that became so popular, but perhaps he should be flattered that he's ahead of the curve. Levitt for example shows that, along the popularity curve, early adopters of a name tend to be well-off, and then the name passes to lower status families.

Daniel O'Connor writes:

Part of the confusion seems related to your definition of a fad.

Just because one did not consciously choose a name that seemed trendy does not mean that one was not inadvertently participating in a fad. We are all participating in cultural fads without realizing it, imagining that we are making highly rational and independent choices when we are actually being influenced by the choices of others.

These partly subconscious memetic dynamics help explain everything from the life cycle of names to changing standards of beauty, fashion, and music.

geoffrey writes:

dsquared is on track. What you note isn't really a different phenomenon from a fad -- it's just a little more nuanced. Here, you are motivated in part by an effort to avoid very common names. Fair enough. But that's the fad. And the names you chose didn't come out of the Ether. You chose faddish names from the category, "not too common names." The ironic bit, of course, is (and I bet this is true for a lot of fads many of which undoubtedly begin as efforts to dis-associate rather than associate) that by following the trend you obviate its very purpose. But, to repeat: I think it quite likey that both names were faddish -- but faddish among a well-defined but narrower group of parents than you might first think to look to in identifying a fad.

For what it's worth, we just had a girl and named her Annabelle. I assume it is not a very common name. But moreover I assume that it will end up being more common than we expected.

Hei Lun Chan writes:

If you want a unique name for your kid, choose one that used to be popular 50 years ago. I bet Edna is a safe choice ...

Kerry writes:

Another option is to pick literary names from books that are more than 500 years old or come from a radically different culture(or both). To give a few examples, you don't see Egil, Vrainamoinenn, Bhimasena, or Rustam in the top thousand names.

dsquared writes:

If you want a unique name for your kid, choose one that used to be popular 50 years ago. I bet Edna is a safe choice ...

Heh, falling into the trap already ... lots of Sidneys, Wilfs, Graces, Dorothies etc already scampering round the streets of my affluent little early-adopter district.

Robert Schwartz writes:

Aidan Kaplan? Tristan Kaplan?
Tristan = Wagner = Nazis

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