The recent revelation that J.K. Rowling is the author of the critically acclaimed and — until now — commercially unsuccessful crime novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling” has electrified the book world and solidified Rowling’s reputation as a genuine writing talent: After all, if she can impress the critics without the benefit of her towering reputation, then surely her success is deserved.
And yet what this episode actually reveals is the opposite: that Rowling’s spectacular career is likely more a fluke of history than a consequence of her unique genius.
Whenever someone is phenomenally successful, whether it’s Rowling as an author, Bob Dylan as a musician or Steve Jobs as an innovator, we can’t help but conclude that there is something uniquely qualifying about them, something akin to “genius,” that makes their successes all but inevitable.
Even when we learn about their early setbacks — Rowling’s original manuscript for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was rejected by no fewer than 12 publishers; Columbia Records initially refused to release Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”; Jobs was booted from Apple in the mid-1980s — we interpret them as embarrassing oversights that were subsequently corrected rather than evidence that their success may have somehow been a product of luck or happenstance.
Several years ago, my colleagues Matthew Salganik and Peter Dodds at Columbia University and I challenged this conventional wisdom with an unusual experiment. We set out to prove that market success is driven less by intrinsic talent than by “cumulative advantage,” a rich-get-richer process in which early, possibly even random events are amplified by social feedback and produce large differences in future outcomes.
To test our cumulative-advantage hypothesis, we recruited almost 30,000 participants to listen, rate and download songs by bands they had never heard of. Unbeknownst to the participants, they were randomly assigned to one of two groups: an “independent” group, which saw only the names of the bands and the songs, and a “social influence” group, whose participants could see how many times songs had been downloaded by others in the group. In addition, those in the social- influence group were assigned to one of eight different “worlds” that were created concurrently, allowing us to effectively “run” history many times.
If quality determined success, the same songs should have won every time by a margin that was independent of what people knew about the choices of others. By contrast, if success was driven disproportionately by a few early downloads, subsequently amplified by social influence, the outcomes would be largely random and would also become more unequal as the social feedback became stronger.
What we found was highly consistent with the cumulative- advantage hypothesis. First, when people could see what other people liked, the inequality of success increased, meaning that popular songs became more popular and unpopular songs become less so. Second and more surprisingly, each song’s popularity was incredibly unpredictable: One song, for example, came in first out of 48 we sampled in one “world,” but it came in 40th in another.