Got An Original Idea? Not Likely.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

By Wray Herbert

In the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep plays Miranda Priestly, the workaholic editor of a fashion magazine called Runway, and Anne Hathaway plays her deliberately unfashionable assistant Andy. Miranda senses Andy’s disdain for her world of designer skirts and belts and shoes, and at one point she icily confronts her assistant for her arrogance: “You see that droopy sweater you’re wearing?” she asks. “That blue was on a dress Cameron Diaz wore on the cover of Runway—shredded chiffon by James Holt. The same blue quickly appeared in eight other designers’ collections and eventually made its way to the secondary designers, the department store labels, and then to some lovely Gap Outlet, where you no doubt found it. That color is worth millions of dollars and many jobs.”

Miranda is an intuitive social psychologist. The fact is that whether you favor droopy sweaters or Manolo Blahnik shoes, very few people are original thinkers when it comes to what they wear. There are a few true innovators, of course, but unless you spin and dye the fabric and design your own wardrobe, you are cribbing from someone else’s mind. And what’s true of sweaters is also true of less trivial ideas, which move through the ether in unpredictable ways. If you think you coined a clever phrase or “discovered” a new talent, you almost certainly did not.

That’s because we don’t really operate as free agents in the world. We are all entangled in complex patterns of collective behavior, many spontaneously organized and most entirely outside our understanding or awareness. Psychologists are very interested in these circles of ideas, how they grow and how people navigate them. Is there an ideal social arrangement for creating and sharing ideas, for mixing innovation and imitation? Are there perils in “borrowing” from others’ minds, or in being too much of a rogue explorer?

A team of psychologists at Indiana University has been exploring these questions in the laboratory, and they’re gaining some insights into the collective mind. Robert Goldstone and his colleagues created a virtual environment, an Internet-based “world” in which groups of people—from 20 to about 200-- simultaneously “forage” for ideas. They use the word “forage” to make the point that ideas are really just abstract resources, food for the brain. As we solve life’s various problems, we observe others’ ideas in action, invent a few of our own, trade off ours against theirs—and succeed or fail. The psychologists have been studying these virtual successes and failures to see what lessons they can draw.

Here’s an example of how the experiment works. Participants, interconnected via the Internet, were asked to guess numbers from zero to 100, and they received feedback in the form of points, depending on whether their guesses were more or less correct. Think of this as the first day on the job in a big corporation where you know none of the cultural rules; all you can do is guess and see if you guessed right. But while you’re guessing and getting feedback, you’re also watching all your colleagues to see what choices they make and how well they do. If they do better than you, maybe imitation makes more sense than guessing? Or maybe you’ll try another guess?

And so forth. Trial and error, borrowing, compromise—until you figure it out. Meanwhile, all the other participants are doing the same thing, including watching you. The scientists ran this experiment several different ways, each approximating a different kind of real-life social group. For example, in “local” networks, participants were connected only to a few immediate neighbors, while in global networks everyone was connected to everyone in a rich web. In “small world” networks, participants were connected locally but also had a few long distance connections, so they might pick up an idea or two from, say, a distant relative.

The findings, reported in the February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, were intriguing. When the problems were easy, the global networks did best. This makes sense because such richly connected groups can spread information rapidly, and basically speed is all that’s needed to spread a simple notion efficiently. But as the problems became trickier, the small-world networks tended to perform better. In other words, the truism that more information is always better proved untrue when life got a little messy. And as the problems became even more complex, the small local networks proved most clever.

No one of us can navigate this complicated world by ourselves. It’s too arduous and time-consuming, like designing all your own clothes instead of trusting the Gap. But there is also a hazard in connectivity. If everyone ends up knowing exactly the same thing, you have a world of like-minded people, and this homogenous group ends up acting like a single explorer rather than a federation of ideas. People pile on to the well-known “bandwagon,” even if it’s 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 insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 10:55 AM


At 1:35 AM , Blogger louis said...


At 6:00 AM , Blogger udigrudi said...

I've read that post somewhere before. Nothing new there.

Everything psychologists are saying they got from Shakespeare or religion or something like that. They just do a bunch of tests to try and prove the ideas they grew up with.

At 12:06 AM , Blogger PhD in Yogurtry said...

this study reminds me of a 60 minutes episode where a small group of constituents representing diverse segments of society were gathered at a table to discuss heated and controversial social / political problems. this summary suggests that the more complex the problems, the more likely a small, closely knitted group will be at finding a solution, a group that allows dialog.

At 5:31 AM , Blogger Hernan said...

Fascinating article- I must say. I'm glad to have found this blog because I recently entertained the idea that hardly anything is original anymore--as it pertains to the arts, philosophical abstraction, general viewpoints of occurrences in nature, etc. There are constant shifts in innovation and decision-making though. How do we quantitatively measure the benefits of solitude versus socialization, with respect to newly acquired viewpoints, and ideas leading to actions thereof? Check out GROUPTHINK by Irving Janis.

At 3:48 PM , Blogger compugrrrl said...

Funny, I was thinking along these lines just the other day, when Hilary Clinton accused Barack Obama of plagiarism.

I teach classes to adults, which means I do a fair amount of speaking to and with groups. When I'm really "on", I swear I pick up words and phrases out of the ether. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but I definitely talk differently than I usually do, and to me, it feels as I'm connecting with my audience and somehow absorbing the way *they* speak, and speaking that way back to them.

I can easily imagine someone accusing me of plagiarism at those times (and for all I know, I *am* plagiarizing someone, somehow, somewhere). But to me, it feels as if I'm in some way tapping into a collective consciousness and communicating within it.

It's intriguing too that more complex ideas are solved more easily by smaller groups. I'd be really interested in more research about how groups behave based on their size.