by Dr. Donna Roberts

The Story

“I feel like that’s been done before,” chimes Heidi Klum to the hopeful designer facing Project Runway’s latest red carpet gown challenge. And just like that, hope flies out the proverbial window, replaced by the dread of knowing he may be the newest ex-runway contestant. It’s a grave sin, this offense of not being completely new and original. In this design competition, one must “take risks” and show the judges something they “haven’t seen before” to be considered worthy of remaining in the competition.

We see this behavior in humans from cradle to grave. Children of all ages abandon last years’ stand-in-line-for-sixteen-hours-on-Black-Friday-must-have-toy for the next shiny new obsession. And adults … well, if we’re honest, we exhibit much of the same behavior. A closet full of clothes and nothing to wear. The cliché “57 Channels and nothing on,” which is more like 357 channels these days, but who’s counting? The latest and greatest model of smartphone that is only ever so slightly different, and yet different enough that it makes our “old” (as in 18 months old) phone seem so distasteful and archaic. Like the toddler with his passé toy we are bored with what we have and want the next distraction, especially if everyone else wants it, and especially if it is scarce.


Psych Pstuff’s Summary

Psychologists consider novelty seeking a character trait that encompasses a propensity toward pursuing new experiences and unfamiliar situations, and is often related to adrenaline seeking. It is also associated with extraversion and openness to experience in personality scales, and inversely related to tolerance for boredom and routine.

In today’s super-fast-paced society, this relentless pursuit of the new and different is praised and encouraged, with words like innovative, adventurous and curious defining these individuals, while its opposite is mostly considered old, stodgy and boring.

As with many evasive concepts, we try to nail down a precise meaning and hierarchy, to force order upon that which is seemingly orderless. So it is with the nomenclature for the many aspects of what hits the mark in popular culture.

Styles generally refer to overarching aspects of the presentation of a product and are considered the most enduring, or at least recursive, of these typically fickle phenomena.

Fads or crazes represent specific products or patterns of collective behavior that tend to rise rapidly in popularity for a finite, and usually relatively short, period of time. They can develop an enthusiastic, sometimes cult-like following, and include a broad spectrum of marvels such as diets, toys, clothing, make-up, hairstyles, food, music, sports and daredevil activities.

A fashion represents a middle ground between these two poles. It reflects the current popular trend, but is more pervasive across a particular category and can have a longer duration of popularity.

For those who love a good graphical depiction, provides the differing rise and fall of popularity in these related cycles.

Despite the specificity of this nomenclature, and the predictability of the lifecycles, a bit of mystique still surrounds the phenomena of fads. Just what is it that makes something—especially something seemingly … well … ridiculous (e.g., the pet rock, to note one particularly nonsensical craze) turn into an overnight sensation that one simply cannot live without … at least until the next big thing comes along? Consumer behavior has always had a bit of a black box mystery to it. Research on consumer behavior shows that most people don’t even know why they do things, don’t accurately report their preferences, don’t follow through with their purchase intentions, and often cannot adequately explain why they buy the things they do.

It’s a curious mixture—the way we respond to things and the way we respond to the way other people respond to things. Several psychological concepts seem to touch on a part of the explanation.

The social psychology phenomena known as information cascade leads to the reactive group behavior referred to as the bandwagon effect. Information cascades occur when the observed behavior of others causes individuals to behave in a similar manner, even when that behavior contradicts their own thoughts, beliefs or preferences. Cornell professors David Easley and Jon Kleinberg, in their book Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World, note that “a cascade develops when people abandon their own information in favor of inferences based on earlier people’s actions.” The bandwagon effect refers to the increasing rate at which the ideas, fads and trends, propagated by the information cascade, spread as more and more people adopt the behavior, i.e., hop on the bandwagon.

Another behavioral phenomenon that drives the proliferation of fads is the scarcity principle, whereby the perceived rarity or difficulty in obtaining an item fuels the both urgency to acquire, and its perceived value. Combined with the reactance theory, which describes how individuals’ motivation to obtain or participate in something increases with the notion that the choices are restricted, it explains why people react to “limited time only” or “limited supply” offers, when they might otherwise not respond so enthusiastically.

According to Karen M. Douglas in Encyclopedia of Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, “Researchers argue that people follow fads and fashions as a result of both informational social influence (where they incorporate useful information from others about what is acceptable and desirable) and normative social influence (where they adopt the acceptable behavior or desired object so that they themselves are accepted and liked by others).”

From hula-hoops to cabbage patch dolls to fidget spinners. From goldfish swallowing to streaking to twerking. From Elvis to the Beatles to Miley Cyrus. From marbles to FarmVille to Pokémon Go. Our collective obsessions represent the power of social conformity and our need to connect through shared experience, for better or worse.

As Muppet creator Jim Henson, once noted “Nobody creates a fad. It just happens. People love going along with the idea of a beautiful pig. It’s like a conspiracy.” And, who could argue with Miss Piggy?


Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.