December 19, 2005
Statistical GravityHere in the UK, Channel 4 recently ran a spoof called "Space Cadets" where various representatives of Joe Public were conned into believing they had been launched into space from a base in Russia, when in fact they'd spent the entire time at a disused airbase on the east coast of England. The program itself was rather worrying - is that really the level of gullability these days? By all accounts, the victims were totally taken in, even though the production team and the actors playing the pilots dropped some massive hints, and the whole experience flew in the face of what most 9 year olds know about space flight.
What interested me most was the selection process they used to whittle down applicants to a handful who would "go to Russia" for cosmonaut training. One test used a big bowl full of rubber balls, and applicants were asked how many balls they thought there were. They got two guesses - the final one being written on a whiteboard for other applicants to see. After each applicant left the room, the selectors rubbed their guess off the board and replaced it with a much higher figure. They then covered the board so the next applicant couldn't see the previous guesses. Again, the next applicant was asked to make an initial guess, which was often quite reasonable. Then the previous guesses were revealed, and the applicant was asked to make their final guess. Seeing the much higher estimates apparantly given by previous applicants, quite a few of them changed their guesses and went with a much higher figure. This was designed to test their suggestibility - the more suggestible they were, the less likely they would be to rumble the con.
What interested me most about this experiment is how it seems to apply in all walks of everyday life. Suggestible people - and we're all suggestible to some degree - might be more likely to buy the number one album in the pop charts because it's number one, for example. If that many people liked it, it must be quite good, yes? Despite being really quite rubbish, a lot of people paid to see Star Wars Episode III simply because a lot of other people had already seen it. And if 90% of PC users run Windows XP, which operating system are you most likely to buy?
Phenomena like pop records, movies, operating systems and a whole bunch of other stuff can be subject to a force called statistical gravity. The bigger they get, the greater their attraction. The idea was muted a while ago in studies of geo-ethnicity in major European cities. A person of a particular ethnic origin was far more likely to live in an area where there were already lots of people of the same ethnic background - and hence we get ghettos. (The same also works with other social factors, like income and education.)
The phenomenon of statistical gravity is largely a product of psychology, and arguably a product of suggestibility. We've all succumbed to it. For example, who would you prefer to buy a laptop off - Dell or that bloke who runs the PC repair shop round the corner? If you're having a night on the town with friends, which bar do you go into - the one with the sad-looking middle-aged bloke sitting at the bar, or the one full of attractive young people looking as if they're having a good time (which seems to involve a lot of shouting these days)?
A lot of the time we make emotional decisions based on apparant popularity, but with the benefit of hindsight I've found that popularity is a pretty awful indicator of actual merit. The continued success of something already successful is far more likely because of the increased force of attraction success (and size) brings.
Another TV program they show here in the UK that I watch with wide-eyed amazement is called "Dragon's Den" (8pm on Tuesdays, BBC2). A series of inventors and wannabe entrepeneurs pitch desperately to win investment from four self-made multi-millionaires. The swaggering self-belief of the dragons is a joy to behold. They genuinely believe they're multi-millionaires because there's something special about them. Something they did, or something they knew, made them as rich and successful as they are.
But they, like most of us most of the time, have been fooled by randomness. For every Donald Trump or Richard Branson, there are a million more who tried twice as hard and were twice as smart, but their lottery numbers simply never came up. You can trace the trajectories of all hugely (abberationally) successful people and organisations back to one extraordinary piece of blind luck that took them momentarily from being an empty bar nobody wants to drink in, to a bar full of beautiful people that most of us would never be able to get into even if we wanted to - which we will, because of statistical gravity.
So let's say that for a while, one of these dragons has the empty bar. In any given hour, the odds were that maybe 1 person would come in and buy a drink. But then one day a bus-load of fashion models pulls up outside with a flat tire, and they're all thirsty and hungry and there are no other bars in sight. So they come into your bar and order drinks and food and stay for a couple of hours. And in those couple of hours people are walking past and thinking "hey, it looks quite good in there". All of a sudden your force of attraction is much greater, and as a result more young, attractive people are coming in because, all of a sudden, your bar looks like their kind of place. And the more that come in, the more likely those that follow will, too.
Take another example. Let's imagine you're a struggling actor. All actors struggle. And most are attractive and talented, too - every bit as much as the top earners in Hollywood. For years you scrape a meager living doing bits of this and bobs of that, but never really getting anywhere. Then one day, you get a break. You're waiting tables at a classy Hollywood restaurant and in walks Martin Scorcese in a really good mood. You naturally give him fantastic service, and as he's leaving you a huge tip, you slip him your card and say "if anything comes up, any little bit part, please consider me". And the next day he's wracking his brains for an actor who can play a major speaking role in his next movie, and your card falls out of his wallet and he thinks "hey, why not" (he's in a really good mood, remember). Next thing you know, you're auditioning for a major part in a major movie. And you get the part, make the movie, and it's a big success. This is where statistical gravity comes into play. Now that you're successful, scripts start landing on your doormat. You make some more successful movies, and the scripts keep coming and they keep getting better. Eventually you're offered the lead in a big Hollywood blockbuster, and you're home and dry. You can pick and choose your projects. You can ask for crazy amounts of money. The more successful you are, the easier it is to be successful. (Of course, you have to know how to pick the right scripts - but that's a damn sight easier than getting your first break, I'm told.)
But your success is no measure of your ability. There are probably 10,000 actors out there earning a crust who are better than you - better looking, more talented, more committed. They just didn't get that all-important break - that piece of blind luck that momentarily boosted your force of attraction just long enough to establish your long-term success.
The downside of statistical gravity is that, while the successes are hoovering up opportunities, that means there are less opportunities for the rest of us.
Life can be very unfair sometimes!
Posted 15 years, 9 months ago on December 19, 2005