How human brain judges popularity

Wall Street Journal today describes the work of Matthew Salganik and Duncan J. Watts (published in Social Psychology Quarterly in December 2008) on researching herd mentality with popularity rankings. 12,000 volunteers were given 48 random fairly obscure songs, and asked to rate them. To help things out, popularity rankings were provided. Except that a certain group saw the popularity ranking in exactly reverse order – least popular songs appearing on top. You’d think that good songs would still win based on their merit, right?

The prior No. 1 began making a comeback on the new top dog, but the former No. 47 maintained its comfortable lead on the old No. 2, buoyed by its apparent popularity. Overall, the study showed that popularity is both unstable and malleable.

Look for page 338 of that PDF document if you want to read the details of the experiment.

Another research Carl Bialik points to is Observational Learning: Evidence from a Randomized Natural Field Experiment by Hongbin Cai, Yuyu Chen, and Hanming Fang out of Duke that gave customers of Chinese restaurants a “most popular items” list when they were ordering off the menu:

We find that, depending on the specifications, the demand for the top 5 dishes is increased by an average of about 13 to 20 percent when the top 5 popularity rankings are revealed to the customers; in contrast, being merely mentioned as some sample dishes does not significantly boost their demand. Moreover, we find some modest evidence that the observational learning effect is stronger among infrequent customers, and that customers’ subjective dining experiences are improved when presented with the information about the top choices by other consumers, but not when presented with the names of some sample dishes.