The Secret Law of Success and Status

Which book will become a bestseller? Sales are often driven by word of mouth rather than quality.Image credit: Antonio J Galante/VW PICS/UIG via Getty

Formula: The Universal Law of Success Albert-Laszlo Barabashi Little Brown (2018)

A few years ago, physicist César Hidalgo and his team devised a way to rank the most famous people of all time. The metric used by the Pantheon Project is the number of languages ​​in which a person’s Wikipedia page appears. Most famous musician? Jimi Hendrix. The most famous American? Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps inevitably, the classical Greek philosopher Aristotle tops the entire list.

Among celebrities, reality TV star Kim Kardashian came in at No. 14, although her fame clearly eclipsed any recorded achievement.As physicist and network scientist Albert-Lázló Barabási formula, reflecting deep social laws that can be understood through science. Success and recognition in many fields are only weakly linked to effort, skill, or inherent excellence. Often, they are determined by less obvious human behavioral factors that influence how attention flows through social networks.

formula is a fun, quick, first-hand effort to use big data to pull back the curtain on our collective dynamics. As Barabási shows, hidden statistical and multiplicative processes have a huge impact on the human world, but often operate outside our general consciousness. Many of the effects described are not surprising in inanimate matter systems, such as irregularly growing cracks in brittle materials. This is just ordinary statistical physics. But when these unstable cascades are recorded in the systems of free will people, they are eye-opening, and they have a major impact on people’s lives. They may push one person to vastly outperform another with the same skills, or drive rapid, unpredictable shifts in social norms such as smoking.

Barabási describes how big data collected from the web, including social media and other digital repositories, can be used to help researchers tease out the actual relationship between success and performance. If a song is more popular, or a person is richer, is it because of inherent differences, or is it just the result of luck and random amplification? Even 20 years ago, these questions were the subject of ideological debate, not scientific inquiry. Science has changed the rules of the game.

Barabási considers puzzles in music, science, wealth, sports and wine. In some areas, such as competitive tennis, skill and strength are decisive. In other cases—including whether a book is pulped or a bestseller—quality appears to be overwhelmed by network effects, such as a tendency to flock to books that are already selling. An interesting example is the German pilot Manfred von Richthofen (“Red Baron”). One of the top flying aces of World War I, he was objectively surpassed in many ways by his almost forgotten French counterpart, René Fonck. Barabashi said von Richthofen’s enduring fame had a lasting impact in part because of his early death as a war hero, which made him useful for publicity.

Barabási suggested that its general workings are now becoming clearer, thanks to some simple “laws of success” that have emerged from the research.

The first is “performance drives success, but when performance cannot be measured, the network drives success”. Competitive tennis, good players win time and again, showing advantages. But finding objective means of ranking when judging wine is not easy: repeated blind tastings, even among wine experts, can lead to wildly fluctuating results. When quality is difficult to measure, observed differences in success—as judged by popularity or sales, for example—come from network effects. People rush to buy an early leader because they mistakenly think other people’s choices tell them the standard.

This leads to huge differences in results that have nothing to do with quality at all. This phenomenon is the subject of the Second Law: “Performance is limited, but success is unlimited.” Take the top 100 wines to the competition. Their real differences in quality, such as in clarity or varietal character, are usually small: they are all produced by top winemakers using similar techniques. However, sales of one wine can be orders of magnitude higher than others due to the amplification power of social networks.

Social scientists have known about the effects for decades, although research by many, including Barabashi and his students, has brought them into sharper focus. formula Nuanced research showing how to predict success is also covered. So the third law described by Barabashi is: “Past success × fitness = future success”. Careful study by network scientist Manuel Cebrian or complexity scholar Dashun Wang found that it is possible to determine how much a product’s popularity depends on its quality or suitability, and how much can be traced back to random amplification of network effects. Detailed data on consumer ratings and sales collected over time by sites such as can be used to disentangle from real consumer preferences based on real perceived quality (those that tend to push already popular products towards further popularity). factor). This understanding can be used to predict trends, or it can be used to improve sales or consumer satisfaction.

Then there’s the fourth law: “While the success of a team requires diversity and balance, an individual will receive credit for the team’s accomplishments.” Analysis of highly successful teams in science or business shows which individuals receive the most credit It has nothing to do with the people who actually work. Credit is based on perception and is a collective social phenomenon. Effective teams absolutely need diversity, but society singles out lonely individuals for credit.

common, formula Offers a rich research tour of how the relatively simple power of feedback can guide our lives in surprising and counterintuitive ways. We might think that success should depend on one’s skills and effort. More important, however, is how others respond by interacting in complex social networks. Even individual success is a thoroughly social issue.

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