Our tastes in fashion, and indeed, our ideas in general, are almost never the result of a solo creative effort. Rather, they are influenced by collective behavior of which we may or may not be consciously aware. Robert L. Goldstone and a team of researchers at Indiana University have been modeling collective behavior in a laboratory setting to determine how idea propagate in different social arrangements.

The IU researchers created a virtual environment in which 20 to 200 people “forage” for ideas. The choice of the term “forage” by the psychologists – they consider ideas to be abstract resources that are, in effect, food for the brain. (For a slightly different perspective on the same idea, see Marketing to the Infovore.) The researchers believe that the ideas that we adopt come from observing the ideas of others, coming up with some of our own, and then testing in the real world.

Their experiments are fairly simple – subjects connect to the environment via the Internet, and have to guess numbers from 0 to 100. They get feedback on their guesses – more points are awarded if their guess is closer to the target. Each subject can also observe the guesses and feedback of other participants, and can imitate the guesses of the others if they are observed to score more points. The size of the networks varied, with some being “global,” others “local,” and some a mix of mostly local with a few global contacts. The latter might simulate a typical real-world social network, in which most feedback is local but where the subject has a few more distant contacts.

The results showed that different network sizes worked better for different problems. Simple problems were solved best with the global networks, while more complex ones were more readily solved by smaller, tightly knit networks.

It’s quite a leap from guessing numbers to deciding whether you should choose Dockers or Armani, but the researchers think ideas do propagate in a similar manner. An article by Wray Herbert in Scientific American Mind, Got an Original Idea? Not Likely – What fashion teaches us about the federation of ideas, closes with the amusing note about how even bad ideas can proliferate by collective idea sharing: “People pile on the well-known bandwagon, even if it is a really bad idea. It happens in politics, in musical taste, and yes, in the world of fashion. How else can you explain the popularity of Crocs?”

For more information, check out Group Behavior in a Complex System and IU’s Percepts and Concepts Laboratory.

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