Group Think: This Is So We

Our preferences in art and music are often influenced by the masses.

By Carlin Flora, published November 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Duncan Watts was annoyed to see a rapturous mob swarming around Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa at the Louvre while many other magnificent works at the museum sat unviewed.

A sociologist at Columbia University, Watts traced the Mona Lisa's popularity to a series of events that brought attention to it, among which were its theft by an Italian patriot in 1911 and a refashioning by Andy Warhol in 1963.

"We have this myth of individual people making decisions, but our tastes are shaped by social forces," says Watts's colleague Matthew Salganik, a professor of sociology at Princeton University.

To explore why some works of art top the charts while others languish in the discount bin, the team created a Web site where thousands of subjects could listen to obscure songs. Half of the group simply downloaded the tunes they liked. The other half did the same, but could see how many times each song had already been downloaded.

The second group tended to choose the most popular songs, creating a snowball effect for tunes picked by the first listeners. Though bowing to the influence of others gets a bad rap, there are good reasons to go along with the crowd, Salganik says. "We're social creatures. If everyone at work is talking abut Harry Potter, it's nice to be able to join in." Besides, it's a natural shortcut out of the tremendous consumer-choice overload we face.

Groupthink tends to keep the dreck down, thankfully unappealing songs (as judged by the group who couldn't see which were popular) were not downloaded often. But not all good songs rose to the top. Salganik advises artists not to feel bad if the masses haven't latched on to their work. "Just because you haven't broken through doesn't mean people wouldn't like what you're doing if they were exposed to it."