Names, culture, and popularity

2 minute read

I’ve had this paper about “adoption speed” and cultural tastes on my desktop for more than a month, meaning to write something about it. Here’s the abstract:

Products, styles, and social movements often catch on and become popular, but little is known about why such identity-relevant cultural tastes and practices die out. We demonstrate that the velocity of adoption may affect abandonment: Analysis of over 100 years of data on first-name adoption in both France and the United States illustrates that cultural tastes that have been adopted quickly die faster (i.e., are less likely to persist). Mirroring this aggregate pattern, at the individual level, expecting parents are more hesitant to adopt names that recently experienced sharper increases in adoption. Further analysis indicate that these effects are driven by concerns about symbolic value: Fads are perceived negatively, so people avoid identity-relevant items with sharply increasing popularity because they believe that they will be short lived. Ancillary analyses also indicate that, in contrast to conventional wisdom, identity-relevant cultural products that are adopted quickly tend to be less successful overall (i.e., reduced cumulative adoption). These results suggest a potential alternate way to explain diffusion patterns that are traditionally seen as driven by saturation of a pool of potential adopters. They also shed light on one factor that may lead cultural tastes to die out.

OK, so the basic idea is that people can tell when something is getting popular really fast, and they start to be less and less likely to adopt the trend. The study doesn’t directly address whether that might be due to the availability of copycats – once “Braden” gets popular enough, people start to divert to sound-alike names like Jayden, Aidan, and Kayden. I wonder how much companies actively try to invoke this process – how much of an opening is there for a Microsoft Zune or Palm Pre from those who might sense the Apple iPod or iPhone growth has been too fast? And how much of a “slow build” happens because you build the appearance of “classic style” as opposed to fad. I remember how fast people stopped wearing “Jams” by 1990, whereas the Gap seems to have single-handedly generated a never-ending trend of khaki.

One interesting thing is that just after this paper came out, WolframAlpha went public. And you can basically do all the research for the paper on that interface with a simple one-phrase search. For example, here’s a search result for the historical popularity of my twins’ names in the U.S.:

Sadie and Lucy name history, U. S. demography

Oh, yes. That’s quite a time-waster we have there.


Berger J, Le Mens G. 2009. How adoption speed affects the abandonment of cultural tastes. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA (early online) doi:10.1073/pnas.0812647106