Game theory explains why popular baby names come and go
It’s time to choose a name for your baby girl. You’ve always liked the name Ava, but your best friend’s one-year-old has the same name and you don’t want to cause confusion. (In fact, so many new parents chose the name Ava was the third most popular female name from 2016 to 2020.) So you choose something else; nothing too wacky, but nothing too basic either. Charlotte maybe?
According to a recent study spearheaded by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, some iteration of this decision-making process likely happens every day in the United States — dictating trends in music, fashion, food and, of course, , baby names. Led by Associate Professor Russell Golman, social scientists have taken an unconventional approach to probing these society-wide shifts in preferences. They created a mathematical model using a framework derived from the field of game theory.
Golman hoped that by testing commonly held assumptions with empirical methods, his team could reveal the truth behind them. “Mathematics forces us to be precise when we talk about social phenomena, so that we can check whether our statements actually make logical sense,” he says.
In his book Everything is obvious: once you know the answer, computer science social scientist Duncan Watts writes, “People obviously like to fit in. Just look at the spread of “Bieber fever”. After quoting this, Golman adds a caveat: “Obviously people like to stand out. Just watch a hipster pretend you’ve never heard of their favorite band.”
This was Golman’s starting point: could a model that incorporates both the desire to conform and to individualize explain the erratic nature of societal preferences? To find out, he turned to the game-theoretic concept of “equilibrium”, the idea that (given a set of rules that produce a limited number of options), players in a game will end up being satisfied with a result.
Golman modeled two balances. The first represented the desire to conform and the second represented the desire to stand out. “The first thing I found was, at first for me, a surprise. At first glance, these things seem to be complete opposites,” he says. “But if you put them together, you always achieve balance. .”
From a game theorist’s point of view, the problem had been solved. When the two balances were combined, they produced another balance that considered both desires. But Golman was not satisfied: “We don’t see balance in the world. We don’t see everyone agreeing, ‘Yeah, we’ve found the perfect baby name and we’re done. All babies will have this name.
Now that he had a pattern, he had to find a way to break it. What third factor could predict the unpredictability of human taste?
The social network
Looking for an idea, Golman sifted through the sociological literature on trends and fads. Some have suggested that an elite class of tastemakers continually tries to distinguish themselves while the lower classes rush to imitate. Others have argued that new behaviors arise at random and cross societies before being rejected.
But a third proposition intrigues him. A group of multidisciplinary researchers, after investigating how an individual particular social network affects purchase choices, saw society as a combination of many overlapping group identities rather than a monolith. “Once we introduced the networks into the model, it was no longer guaranteed to reach equilibrium,” says Golman.
Finally, he and his team had a model that reflected the reality of the aesthetically diverse world around them. While the desires to conform and stand out were important, it was social media that determined who people compared themselves to. “It’s about who you want to conform with and who you don’t want to conform with. The people who end up being the trendsetters – it just depends on where they are in the network,” Golman says.
Emma is so 2010
It was finally time to see if the model held up in the light of the raw data. Golman and his team used an algorithm to analyze a treasure trove of information about changing aesthetic preferences: decades of American baby names from the Social Security Administration. What the researchers observed, as described in the resulting paper, were “random walks” and “stochastic limit cycles.”
“Imagine a really drunk person stumbling around aimlessly. Every step is in a totally random direction,” Golman says. “But because there are only so many places you can go, you will end up coming back. back and finish where you started.”
This scheme followed the same logic as Golman’s model. In other words, when choosing a name for their baby, parents tried to differentiate their child from his peers. At the same time, however, they didn’t stray too far from the ordinary. Over the generations of naming, we have gone from Emily (the number one female name for most years) to Emma (the number one female name for most of the 2010s).
The framework may be highly theoretical, but Golman thinks there is an important conclusion: neither conformity nor individuation produces meaningful results in a vacuum. In order to reflect the chaotic nature of the real world, our models must take into account our relationships.
“How does a phenomenon or a movement like Black Lives Matter become mainstream? When people talk about something going viral, I think a big part of it is each person deciding, “Is this something I want to endorse publicly?” Their social network will play a big role in whether or not they spread,” Golman says. “I think social media is really underrated for observing the evolution of social systems.”