Algorithms and alchemy

Rabeea Saleem, writer and psychology student based in Pakistan, reviews 'Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular', by Derek Thompson.

In Hit Makers, The Atlantic’s Senior Editor Derek Thompson attempts to decipher the alchemy of hits. His investigation is expansive in terms of scope and time, encompassing things that gained popularity after the turn of the century – from the advent of tabloids and Mickey Mouse to present-day success stories of Star Wars, Instagram and Pokémon Go. What piques our interest?

In the first section – ‘Popularity and the Mind – Thompson explains key cognitive and social psychology terms like metacognition, cognitive disfluency and confirmation bias and applies them to phenomena as diverse as Adele, Fifty Shades of Grey and Buzzfeed. Events such as last year’s US elections are a backdrop for Thompson to explore how media and exposure works.

Many of Thompson’s ideas are encapsulated in the theory of MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) – a term coined by Raymond Loewy, hailed as the ‘Father of Modern Design’. He designed everything from the Coca-Cola bottle and Lucky Strike cigarette packs to some of the most iconic locomotives and automobiles. According to Loewy, MAYA is that elusive amalgamation of familiarity with a hint of challenge in the form of newness. This theory is supported by one of the most verified findings in psychology: the ‘mere exposure effect’, according to which familiarity breeds preference.

Nowadays, so many products are jostling for our attention. According to Hit Makers, this is a contest between neophilia (attraction to new things) and neophobia (resistance to the unfamiliar). The product that manages to attain the intangible ‘golden mean’ between the two succeeds in grabbing our attention.

The book then focuses on other, more subjective factors that affect our choices like disfluency and nostalgia. These concepts are important as they show that for all the algorithms and mathematical formulas, no one can predict sure success – much of what we like is based on the associations we form with that product and our mental state at that moment.

The second section – ‘Popularity and the Market’ – expands its focus to study the effect of networking, information cascades and broadcasting on our choices. The central idea is mainly based on the concept of homophily – you are like the people around you. In today’s world of shrinking attention spans and bombardment of competing stimuli, effectively targeting the desired audience is no mean feat for any person or company aiming to become popular. Thompson talks to the minds behind success stories like Etsy, Pandora and Facebook to understand how such giant businesses, who are dependent on social feedback for success, continue to thrive in the face of constant competition.

In Hit Makers, Thompson doesn’t only include the psychology, but also the logistics and economics of hits. He is quick to point out that the hits are always more than the sum of its parts – people should not look at this book as a manual for a hit maker but rather as
the story behind them.

Inevitably, in analysing the popularity of such disparate elements as vampires, cable news and Spotify, the narrative can get a bit disjointed. And I could have done with even more sociology and psychology. But Hit Makers is an engaging study on the science behind popularity, what makes people click and why.

Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular, by Derek Thompson, is published by Allen Lane; 2017; Hb £20.00

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber