Study: Popularity is Determined More By Peer Pressure Than Quality

by Mack Collier


This morning I came across a fascinating study (via NPR) done by Princeton professor Matthew Salganik who attempted to learn why works of art become popular.  In essence, Salganik wanted to know if popularity was based more so on the actual quality of the art, or does social influence play a role?

To find the answer, Salganik surveyed 30,000 teenagers and let them listen to 48 unknown songs by unknown bands.  What Salganik did was divide these teenagers into one of two groups.  The first group would listen to the music and then rate the songs from one to five stars.  Then after listening to the songs and rating them, the person would then have the opportunity to download the song for free.  This was the ‘independent’ group.

The second group was called the ‘social’ group, and it was divided into eight smaller groups.  Each person in each of these eight groups follows the same process as the independent group.  They listen to the songs, then rate them and finally are presented with the option to download the song for free, or not.  The big difference is that with the social group, every member can see how many times every song has been downloaded by members of their group.  In short, they can see which songs are popular within their group and which ones are not, and they have this information available to them before they rate each song.  But they are only able to see the popularity of the songs within their group (of eight groups within the larger social group).  They can’t see the popularity levels for the songs in the other 7 groups of the larger social group.  Also, in some cases the songs are ordered based on popularity (most popular listed first) and in other groups the popularity of each song is shown, but the list isn’t sorted by popularity.

What Salganik found was that when participants were made aware of the popularity of the songs (but the songs were not sorted based on popularity) that the more popular songs were rated more highly.  When the songs were actually sorted according to popularity, this affect was magnified.  So the popular songs became much more popular and the songs that were lower ranked became even less popular.

Salganik appeared at the Thought Leader Forum in 2011 and explained in more detail some of his findings from this study:

There’s this idea that the more people can see what other people are doing, the more they’re going to find the best thing. But in fact, what we see is that when people can see what other people are doing, they start following people, who are actually following other people who are following other people. And this process of following can become decoupled from the underlying reality.

To give a concrete example from these experiments, there is one song, “Lockdown” by 52 Metro, again a song no one has heard of by a band no one has heard of. In one world, this song came in first. It was the most downloaded
song. In another world, this exact same song came in 40th out of 48. This exact same song competing against the exact same other songs.

But you can see to the extent that when we have these kinds of feedback processes, when people are following what other people are doing, slight initial fluctuations at the beginning can become locked in, and then that leads to
very different outcomes, even for the exact same song.

Isn’t that fascinating?  Please read the excerpts from Salganik’s talk at the Thought Leader Forum.  For example (and I won’t give it away here) but he explains an interesting theory for why The Mona Lisa is actually the most popular painting in the world.

All of this points to a fundamental truth: We as human beings gravitate to that which other human beings have identified as being ‘popular’.  We trust each other and seek out input when we are choosing, especially when given a wide variety to choose from, as the participants in Salganik’s study were given.

The takeaway for your business?  That much of the purchase decision the average customer makes is simply based on feedback from other customers.  Which is exactly why your business should be embracing and engaging with its most passionate customers so that they can help connect with other customers before they make a purchase.

Remember, rock stars don’t have fans because they are rock stars, they are rock stars because they have fans.  If you want to be a rock star brand, you need to learn to connect with your most passionate customers in much the same way that rock stars do.

AFTERTHOUGHT: Since this study was rooted in music (where ‘quality’ is more subjective), does that mean peer pressure has less impact on the popularity of products such as say, travel luggage, where the criteria for what defines a quality product is less subjective?

Pic via Flickr user Gonzalo Baeza  

Penina March 3, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Hi Mack,
I wandered back over to this post after you referred to a post you were really excited about, but which received no comments. Is this the one?

So, probably to be contrary, I’m going out on a limb (because I’m no expert :-), and questioning this comment: “We trust each other.” While I agree with the message of the article, and also with where you point us next as businesses seeking customers, I just don’t think that’s true.

I generally believe in the best about people, but I would suggest that there are just a few people we choose to trust, and what draws us to a product is the “shill effect”: If no one is sitting in the cafe, I’m less likely to go in. If a person happened to step outside and tell me, “this cafe is really good,” I’d be wary.

So it’s complicated… maybe worth digging deeper, maybe I’m just splitting hairs.

Mack Collier March 4, 2014 at 10:17 am

Ha ha no it was a different post, but I’ve noticed that usually when I post a more advanced topic, it gets fewer comments. I really think most of us are hesitant to comment on more ‘advanced’ topics even if we know the topic, for fear that ‘our opinion might be wrong’.

Anyway…as for the trust issue, I think it’s far easier to trust a group versus an individual that we don’t know. For example, if I go to Yelp and a local eatery has 5-star reviews from 32 people, that makes me feel pretty confident in the experience I’d get there. But if one stranger tells me it’s great to eat there, that might not be enough to cause me to visit.

So when I said ‘we trust each other’ I was speaking more in a sense of we trust fellow customers. Obviously if one customer says something that out intuition causes us to doubt, we probably won’t trust that person. But if we have say 3-5 people all telling us the same thing, and no one saying the opposite, then at some point it becomes easy to trust the strangerS we are hearing from.

What do you think?

Previous post:

Next post: