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Stanford researchers model the role of influencers in shaping fads

A person in jeans stands near a cement wall.
(Image credit: Getty Images)
Sep 7 2021
Faculty, Fellow, Research, Stanford

When looking back at the fads of past decades, like 1980’s spandex clothing and the 1990’s boy band craze, later generations often wonder, “How was that ever popular?”

Researchers who study cultural evolution and transmission have long tried to answer these sorts of questions, seeking to get a handle on why trends, behaviors and ideas emerge and grow dominant within populations. One major factor, studies have shown, are the decisions of others.

Both humans and non-human animals alike display so-called conformist and anti-conformist behaviors. Conformists do what most everyone else seems to be doing, and sometimes without any discernible rationale. For example, long skirts can become more popular than short skirts not because they’re warmer or more comfortable, but simply because they’re what’s hip. On the other hand, anti-conformists tend to go against the grain. Paradoxically, however, countercultural trends can ultimately attract enough copycats to explode as the next big mainstream thing.

Against this backdrop, a new study from Stanford researchers has now taken an innovative – one might even say anti-conformist – approach to population dynamics models of conformity. Many such models exist, but few of them have allowed conformity levels to fluctuate – a potential shortfall, given that in real life, studies have shown that conformity levels across a population can dramatically change.

The new model addresses this issue by featuring levels of conformity that vary randomly over time. The new model also includes varying numbers of virtual “role models” that have an impact on others’ choices, similar to “influencers” in today’s social media age.

The upshot: a theoretical model that more naturally captures the chaotic ebb-and-flow of fads out in the real world.

Study co-author, Kaleda Denton, a 2017 SGF Fellow.

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