Atypicality, Emotional Variability, and Cultural Success

Jonah Berger, University of Pennsylvania - the Wharton School
Why do some cultural items (e.g., songs and movies) succeed while others fail? While some have argued that success is random, we suggest that fit with individual-level psychological processes plays an important role. Two projects use natural language processing to test this possibility. · The first project tests whether the similarity between cultural items shapes their success. Natural language processing of thousands of songs examines the relationship between lyrical differentiation (i.e., atypicality) and popularity. Results indicate that the more different a song’s lyrics are from its genre, the more popular it becomes. This relationship is weaker in genres where lyrics matter less (i.e., dance) or where differentiation matters less (i.e., pop) and occurs for lyrical topics but not style. · The second project examines emotional variability. We use textual analysis to plot the emotional trajectories of thousands of movies, and examine the link between emotional variability (i.e., short-term shifts in emotion) and success. Results indicate that more emotionally variable movies receive higher ratings, and this relationship is stronger in genres where uncertainty and surprise should be more desirable (e.g., thrillers and mysteries). Taken together, these two projects shed light on cultural dynamics, why things become popular, and the psychological foundations of culture more broadly.
October, 23 2017 | 12:45 pm - 2:00 pm | Gross Hall 230E

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