Bryan Caplan  

I Coulda Been a Contender

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For every winner, there are ten people saying (perhaps under their breath) that "I'm as good as him. It could have been me." Now Robin links to a clever study showing that this is more than just self-deception:

In our study, ... 14,000 participants ... 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. ...

[A] listener's own reactions is easily overwhelmed by his or her reactions to others. The song "Lockdown," by 52metro, for example, ranked 26th out of 48 in quality; yet it was the No. 1 song in one social-influence world, and 40th in another. Overall, a song in the Top 5 in terms of quality had only a 50 percent chance of finishing in the Top 5 of success.

So does this mean it's a good time to say, "Everyone's buying my book?"

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The author at in a related article titled Politikerforakt writes:
    Politikerforakten vokser stadig, og som Magnus Marsdal påpeker i sin nye bok er det gode grunner til det. Men jeg vil også slå et slag for at politikere ofte er ganske så intelligente mennesker med svært så edle motiver. Likevel vokser forakten, ... [Tracked on April 19, 2007 2:07 PM]
COMMENTS (11 to date)
Horatio writes:

This isn't surprising at all. Have you heard the garbage people listen to? Have you heard the garbage that local bands play? It's not much different. The big boys just have better equipment. Some people just get lucky. Very few famous musical artists are anywhere near the 95th percentile of musical talent.

Felix writes:

It appears that they showed that songs at the top of a list are downloaded more frequently than those at the bottom.

If this is "social influence", then it's "social influence" that makes us read the articles on page 1 of a newspaper more than those on page 6. Or, even if its true that the only information given to the testees were download counts, it's "social influence" that makes me see contents of email folders that have black "unread" numbers associated with them more than I see contents of other folders.

Michael writes:

Are all the cool kids buying your book? Well, I'll get on it right away!

Tim Lundeen writes:

I ordered my copy already :-)

Fabio Rojas writes:

In a lot of ways, this is really old news. All sorts of studies show that characteristics not related to quality affect evaluations. My favorite are studies showing that academic papers receive substantially different evaluations when they are blind reviewed.

Steve Sailer writes:

American Idol and the subsequent success of the singers it has highlighted have shown that the traditional music industry is bad at finding and promoting commercial talent, especially female talent. I suspect that in the music industry, who you sleep with is crucial to making it big, so it fails to maximize profits on female singers due to the self-dealing corruption of male executives.

Scott W writes:

Ever read a book that no one else you know has read? It's annoying.

Ever read a book because you want to know what the big fuss is about? Then talk to people about what you think?

It shouldn' be surprsing that people conform if the next stage of the game is talking with people about it. Some people prefer talking to people more than the first part of this social game we play (whether it is reading, music, art, etc).

Josh writes:

This is exactly why record companies don't pay their artists more - all the value comes from the advertising. Many people think it's the artists who do "all the work" and therefore it's they who should get all the money. But without advertising, the artists are a commodity (honestly, there are probably 100k people who are as good as most of the people on the radio). If anything, many artists are probably OVERpaid by the record companies.

Horatio writes:

It would be interesting to see how this applies to other industries. I remember looking through a New York Times bestseller and realizing that good writing probably doesn't make it up there because the common sheeple just don't get it. This book read like it was written by a middle-schooler.

In science, they don't give out enough Nobel prizes to cover everyone who deserves one. The lucky ones get the prize. Surely, they deserve it, but so do 20 other guys who didn't make the cut. There also seems to be a bias towards Scandinavians, not surprising considering the Scandinavian academies make the decisions.

Jason writes:

Scott W. Exactly right. I have always hated sports watching because I think it is pretty pointless. But, I have to admit that feel that I'm missing out on something when my sports-fan friends get excited talking about last night's game. As a result I have actually watched and paid attention to a football game that I knew my friends would be talking about. So I "downloaded" (into my brain) something of low quality purely because of social influence.

TGGP writes:

In terms of music, nowadays I just listen to Pandora to find new stuff I like, and then download it from Ruckus. Pandora claims not to take into account the tastes of others, just the characteristics I have given thumbs or down to, and I think it works pretty well.

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