Popularity is a fickle thing. Styles, products, social movements and people can be bathing in the spotlight one day and languishing in obscurity the next. And according to a new study, things that catch on most quickly are also abandoned most easily – the faster the rise to prominence, the steeper the fall from grace.
Many researchers have looked into the reasons behind the success of cultural tastes, but Jonah Berger and Gael Le Mens were more interested in the factors that drive them to extinction. To examine that, they looked at the changing popularities of first names in France and the USA over the last 100 years. They found that names that suddenly became popular lost their appeal just as quickly, while those that became more steadily used had more sticking power.
Charlene, for example, became slowly more popular from the turn of the 20th century, peaked in 1950 and declined slowly after. Tricia and Kristi experienced faster rises in the 50s and 60s and fell equally sharply in the 70s and 80s. At their peaks, all three names accounted for around one in every 500 female births in the US, but Charlene had a much larger impact over time because of the slower pace of its change.
It seems that parents are (quite rightly) concerned that fad names will eventually be short-lived. As Berger and Le Mens say, “They may avoid such items to avoid doing something that may later be seen as a flash in the pan.” Of course, that very concern ensures that fast-rising items do become short-lived fads in a very self-fulfilling way.
For humans, our culture is a massive part of our identity, from the way we dress, speak and cook, to the social norms that govern how we interact with our peers. Our culture stems from our ability to pick up new behaviours through imitation, and we are so innately good at this that we often take it for granted.
We now know that chimpanzees have a similar ability, and like us, different groups have their own distinct cultures and traditions.
Now, Andrew Whiten from the University of St Andrews has published the first evidence that groups of chimpanzees can pick up new traditions from each other. In an experimental game of Chinese whispers, he seeded new behaviours in one group and saw that they readily spread to others.
Classical ballet is one of the more conservative of art forms. Dancers express emotion and character through the same vocabulary of postures that was originally set in 1760, and often with entire choreographies that have been handed down for centuries.
But even amid this rigorous cascade of tradition, there is room for change. Over the years, successive generations of ballet dancers have subtly tinkered with positions that are ostensibly fixed and limited by the physical constraints of a dancer’s body. The only changes ought to be a result of the dancers’ varying abilities. But that’s not the case – over the last 60 years, the position of a dancer’s has become increasingly vertical, with the moving leg in particular being lifted ever higher.
Elena Daprati from the University of Rome thinks that these tweaks have been driven by social pressures from audiences. When she reduced pictures of dancers to stick-figure drawings, she found that even people who have never seen a ballet prefer the postures of modern dancers to those of dancers 60 years ago. The results suggest that art can change very gradually because of constant interactions between performers and their audiences.
Almost more importantly, they show that the usually unquantifiable world of artistic expression can be studied with a scientific lens. In this case, the formal nature of classical ballet gave Daprati a rare opportunity to do so. Body postures could be objectively analysed, movements are standardised enough to allow for easy comparisons, and most of all, performances have been carefully archived for decades. That provided Daprati’s group with more than enough raw material for studying the evolution of ballet postures over time.
The nice thing about writing features is that they’re often solicited miles in advance so I can write something, totally forget about it and then be surprised when I open my weekly copy of New Scientist to find my name in a byline.
Following the piece I wrote on FOXP2, this is another of those “the media says this, but here’s what’s really going on” pieces. It’s an exploration of the supposed cultural differences between East Asians and Westerners in the ways they see and think about the world. This is a fairly controversial area and my intention was to shed a bit of light on the debate and go beyond the stereotypes that are so often inaccurately presented by the popular media (and rightfully mocked).
I’d encourage you to read the full piece, but for those who want a taster, the thrust is this:
Psychologists have conducted a wealth of experiments that seem to support popular notions that easterners have a holistic world view… while westerners tend to think more analytically. However, the most recent research suggests that these popular stereotypes are far too simplistic. It is becoming apparent that we are all capable of thinking both holistically and analytically – and we are starting to understand what makes individuals flip between the two modes of thought.
A seemingly endless array of psychological experiments have apparently reinforced the idea of the anlaytic westerner who focuses on prominent objects and uses hard logic, and the holistic easterner, who considers the object’s context and pays special attention to its relationships with its environment. This distinction seems to apply to areas as diverse as perception, attentional biases, use of logic, views of causality and more. Some have suggested that these differences are the result of historical cultural factors harkening all the way back to the relatively independent lives of ancient Greeks versus the more connected existences of the ancient Chinese.
But it seems that it’s a little more complicated than that.
Many of these conclusions are based on limited evidence from a small number of countries, particularly the US, Canada, Japan and China. Factor in people from Europe and other parts of the world and you see more of a continuum rather than a two-sided distinction. And you can find the same distinctions between analytic and holistic thought if you look at a local level rather than focusing on broad sweeps of history or geography.
It’s also possible to evoke one mindset or another.
For example, psychologists have “primed” east Asian volunteers to adopt an individualistic mode of thought simply by getting them to imagine playing singles tennis, circling single-person pronouns or unscrambling sentences containing words such as “unique”, “independence” and “solitude”. In many of the experiments volunteers from a single cultural background – be it eastern or western – show differences in behaviour as large as those you normally get when comparing people from traditionally collectivist and individualist cultures…
What is clear is that the minds of east Asians, Americans or any other group are not wired differently. We are all capable of both analytic and holistic thought. “Different societies make one option seem to make the most sense at any given moment,” says Oyserman. But instead of dividing the world along cultural lines, we might be better off recognising and cultivating our cognitive flexibility.
Obviously, this is a controversial area and it was probably the most difficult thing I’ve had to write yet. I’m pleased with the result though, and Vaughan at Mind Hacks rates it, which is pretty much the highest commendation I could hope for with a neuroscience/psychology piece!