It's that time of year again: the mad rush to get the season's "it" gift.
Are you reading this while scanning eBay for an electronic hamster? Happy holidays! The "it" gift tradition is long and proud. From Tickle Me Elmo and Furbys to Razor Scooters and Robosapien, every year a couple of items rocket to the top of the "must have" list. Hundreds of people camp outside stores, hoping to get their hands on the prize.
Such gifts are examples of social epidemics - instances when many people do the same thing at the same time.
Why do we end up with the same all-star stack of presents? It could be that the best are simply better than the rest. But more likely, an item's elevation to "it"-gift status is random. The Zhu Zhu hamsters could have just as easily been Zhu Zhu gerbils. Yes, the gift that thousands of well-meaning, if slightly obsessive, people thirst for could have been something else.
Consumer behavior is interdependent, not independent; our behavior depends on the behavior of those around us. This dynamic affects both what people talk about and what they buy. Conversations are often driven by the desire to establish common ground, so we talk about celebrities, the weather or the local sports team. We're more likely to discuss bestsellers and blockbusters than niche books or films, and this influences buzz about gifts.
When talk turns to the holidays and presents we are buying, we tend to bring up items we think others have heard of or might want to talk about. It's easier to brag that you're getting little Susie a Razor Scooter than to explain the rare Swedish toy you're importing.
Social influence leads us to buy what other people buy. While the idea that people imitate others is nothing new, some sociologists recently designed an experiment, with results published in the journal Science, that shows how social influence shapes collective outcomes.
In the study, people visited a Web site where they could listen to songs and download them free. Some people were given information about what previous site visitors had downloaded, and this led to convergence: People tended to download songs others had chosen.
In addition, participants in the experiment were split into eight groups and could see the prior downloads only of people in their own group. What the researchers found was powerful. Across the separate groups, the songs that became "hits" were vastly different. The top song in one social world was a flop in another and vice versa. Why? Well, if people imitate others, then whatever gets an early advantage in popularity will carry the day.
As with these "hit" songs, "it" gifts depend less on their innate qualities - their furry, adorable nature, for example - and more on human psychology. Because we tend to talk about and do the same things as others around us, many people end up wanting the same thing.
So as you stand in a long line trying to get your hands on whatever it is that everyone else seems to want this year, stop to recognize that this may have less to do with the gift and more about our herd instincts. And remember that whoever you are giving the present to may be just as happy with something else. As long as everyone else wants it, too.