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Psychol Sci. 2012 Oct 1;23(10):1067-73. doi: 10.1177/0956797612443371. Epub 2012 Sep 13.

From Karen to Katie: using baby names to understand cultural evolution.

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The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.


How do psychological processes shape how culture evolves? We investigated how a cultural item's popularity is shaped by the recent popularity of other items with features in common. Specifically, using more than 100 years of first-names data, we examined how a name's popularity is influenced by the popularity of that name's component phonemes in other names in the previous year. Building on mere-exposure research, we found that names are more likely to become popular when similar names have been popular recently. These effects are nonlinear, however, and overpopularity hurts adoption. In addition, these effects vary with phoneme position. We demonstrate the causal impact of similarity on cultural success in a natural experiment using hurricane names. An exogenous shock to a phoneme's frequency, due to the presence of the phoneme in the names of prominent hurricanes, boosts the popularity of names that share that phoneme. Taken together, our results suggest how the similarity between cultural items affects how popular they become and how culture evolves more broadly.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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