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Penn professor Damon Centola and City University London lecturer Andrea Baronchelli researched why certain words fall in and out of popularity.

Photo: Courtesy of Nina Jean/Creative Commons

Social convention is all around us — from mannerisms to sense of fashion to common belief and lingo. On Monday, Feb. 9, Penn Professor Damon Centola and Andrea Baronchelli of City University London published their findings on how social conventions emerge even when there are already preexisting social conventions.

This study, referred to as "The Name Game," is the first time such an experiment was centralized around the internet. Subjects were presented images of human faces on a computer screen and then asked to give it a name. Meanwhile, another individual was asked to perform the same task. Each participant received a monetary reward when providing the same name as his or her partner, or a penalty when giving a different name.

They theorized that individuals “destroyed” their memory whenever they were penalized, in hopes that they would guess a different and correct word on the following game. 

The researchers related the concept of spontaneous emergence to their study. “Spontaneous emergence is similar to the invisible hand [theory]—everyone is looking to agree locally and in dyadic interactions. Social conventions can emerge suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, with no external forces driving their creation,” Baronchelli said. To achieve a local goal, a common name must be agreed upon. Thus, "spontaneously, there will be an emergence of a single consensus,” he added. 

A particular group of participants was selected based on geographic proximity — individuals near each other answered simultaneously. “We needed all the users to start the experiment at the same time. They are all ‘virgins’ when they arrive,” Baronchelli said. Other groups were selected randomly, regardless of geography. These participants were allowed to see their own previous responses as well as those of their partners. While the first group quickly reached a consensus on a name, the randomized groups took several more interactions to settle on one name.

“In the U.S., people use certain dialect in different geographic regions. For instance, regions of the East, South and West use ‘Pop,’ ‘Soda’ and ‘Coke’ to describe a similar object,” Centola said. The principle of sociology concerns the interrelationship between society and the individual. An individual’s social context or geographic location is influential over his or her mannerisms and behaviors. In the Name Game, subjects grew to understand the convention and follow it, just as society grows to understand its own conventions, and in certain cases, influences other societies. 

“They were not trying to create a social norm," Centola said. "They were trying to create an interaction."

The researchers added a placebo to better understand the emergence of social conventions by having participants swap partners for each round. Believing they were pitted against the same individual for each round, some grew reasonably frustrated and even begged their partners to stop changing the names. According to theory, the smaller groups should have agreed, and then that agreement should have created a larger consensus. But with the professors' intervention, the smaller groups were unable to reach a consensus, preventing a larger one from emerging. 

The results came very slowly, but after 10-12 repeated experiments through the Web, local coordination emerged. “It was difficult at first to have similar results, but it soon caught on almost like wildfire, and the consensus was universally adopted,” Centola said.

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