|By Alan Hall
Originally published in the May 2010 Socionomist
Time after time, we see sociological studies that are hindered by mysteries which socionomics explains. Socionomics can resolve certain questions because it seeks answers from a fundamental cause: the unconscious mood that impels society’s choices.
Three recent, related studies form a concise example. All three studies analyze the same expression of social behavior: babies’ names. The first one spots quasi-manic behavior in the rapid rise and fall of some popular names. The second mentions similarities to the stock market, cycles of boom and bust, and momentum. The third reveals comprehensive societal swings from individualism to conformism and back. All three studies uncover clues whose value is glaring to a socionomist, and all three verge on the socionomic insight. Yet none of them compare naming data to historic stock price data. Had they done so, they would have discovered that social mood drives both categories of decisions.
We’ll look at the three studies in chronological order.
1. The Faster They Rise, the Faster They Fall
Jonah Berger and Gael Le Mens published, “How adoption speed affects the abandonment of cultural tastes,” in March 2009. The authors examined baby naming in the United States and France and found that the popularity of unusual names rises and falls rapidly, much like the popularity of fads such as Hula Hoops, Lava Lamps or Pet Rocks:
Things that catch on more quickly are more likely to be seen as fads and decline more quickly. We can show that things that catch on quickly are less successful over all. That dynamic could be at play in everything from music and fashion to cars and hair styles.1
Unusual names—monikers that barely make it into the top 1,000 popular names of a decade—are the most prone to boom and bust. This profile suggests that the “keep up with the Joneses” urge that contributes to asset overvaluation also governs the popularity of unusual baby names. Charts of the popularity of unusual names—available at BabyNameWizard.com—are remarkably similar to graphs of history’s prominent financial manias and the death tolls of epidemics, as shown in “A Socionomic View of Epidemic Disease” (The Socionomist, June 2009).
Figure 1 shows the rise and fall of a sample unusual name (left), a stock index (middle) and the death rate in an epidemic (right). Each of these social activities is driven by a similar social dynamic—names by mimicry, stock manias by mood, and disease tolls by social and biological interaction. Each reflects a rapid growth and decay process. Chapter 9 of The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior observes:
Says Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, “When a craze, say for pogo sticks, paper darts, Slinkies or jacks sweeps through a school, it follows a history just like a measles epidemic.”2
2. Parents Choose Names Much as Investors Choose Stocks
Todd Gureckis and Robert Goldstone published the study, “How You Named Your Child … ” in August 2009. The authors used the Social Security Administration database to analyze the naming of children throughout the entire U.S. population from 1880-2007. They find that although naming is an expression of individual preference, it is also “fundamentally linked to the behavior and decisions of others”:
We will ultimately argue that the perceived value of a name is determined not by some intrinsic property of the name itself, but is rather an emergent property of the behavior of other parents … . Like the stock market, cycles of boom and bust appear to arise out of the interactions of a large set of agents who are continually influencing one another.3
The authors continue:
In the more recent data (1981-2007) … names seemed to carry with them a “momentum” that tends to push changes in popularity in the same direction year after year. Parents in the United States are increasingly sensitive to the change in frequency of a name in recent time, such that names that are gaining in popularity are seen as more desirable than those that have fallen in popularity in the recent past.4
As the authors intimate, parents gauge name popularity much as investors choose stocks. For instance, few investors bought Ford at a dollar per share in November 2008 when its popularity was falling, but they loved it months later at $14. During the dot-com mania, speculators chased catchy-named IPOs that were already rising in popularity among their peers and the media. Prechter and Parker explain this herding phenomenon in their “Financial/Economic Dichotomy” paper mentioned earlier in this issue (see Authoritarianism Part II, citation 22).
3. Social Mood Governs Conformity in Naming
A study from 2010 ventures closer to socionomics. “Fitting In or Standing Out: Trends in American Parents’ Choices for Children’s Names, 1880-2007,” by Jean M. Twenge, Emodish M. Abebe, and W. Keith Campbell, explores the individualism and conformism expressed in baby naming. The authors write:
We gathered naming data from the Social Security Administration’s database of baby names from 1880 to 2007, recording the percentage of babies given the most popular name or a name among the 10, 25 or 50 most popular for each year and sex. Higher percentages of babies receiving common names correspond to fewer parents giving unusual names and thus presumably an emphasis on fitting in; lower percentages of babies with common names mean more emphasis on standing out.5
The authors also wrote that from “1880 to 2007, parents have increasingly given their children less common names, suggesting a growing interest in uniqueness and individualism.” But the increase in unique names is not a straight line:
Common names decreased in use from 1880 to 1919 and increased slightly from 1920 to 1949 before becoming steadily less popular from 1950 to 2007, with an unremitting decrease after 1983 and the greatest rate of change during the 1990s.6
We decided to compare the authors’ commonness-of-names data to inflation-adjusted stock prices. We found moderate correlation prior to 1935 and a powerful relationship during the Supercycle wave V advance from 1935-2000.
OUR FORECAST: BYE-BYE DWEEZILS AND MOON UNITS
In Figure 2, we plot the commonness of baby names from 1935-2007 against social mood as reflected in U.S. inflation-adjusted stock prices. It shows that parents tend to give their children increasingly unique names during bull markets and increasingly ordinary names during bear markets. The authors of the third study note, “After 1950, fewer and fewer babies received common names.” We note that 1949 marked the kickoff of the wave III bull market. The authors also observed that the fastest rate of decrease in the use of common names occurred in the 1990s. We observe that this trend coincided with the highest positive rate of change in stock prices on the chart. We also note that each major turning point in stocks preceded a major turn in naming trends.
Socionomics explains what is happening. It posits that shared, unconscious impulses to herd produce patterned social mood trends. A positive mood trend imbues society with increasing optimism and confidence, and risk embrace, which are feelings that propel bull markets, as well as creativity, individualism, diversity and flamboyance in realms as varied as fashion, automobile design, housing design and body art. Negative social mood trends bring an increase in doubt, fear, pessimism and risk aversion, which are feelings that drive bear markets; they yield less individuality and ostentation in fashion, automobiles and house design.
Prechter’s early socionomic research observed that society tends to express conformity during bear markets and individuality during bull markets. The August 1985 Elliott Wave Theorist Special Report, “Popular Culture and the Stock Market,” noted the bull’s tendency to flaunt and the bear’s to blend:
Bright colors have been associated with market tops and dull, dark colors with bottoms. It is not coincidence, then, that the smaller the skirt or swimsuit, the brighter the color(s); floor-length fashions, in turn, are more associated with dull, dark colors such as brown, black and grey. All these fashion elements reflect the same general mood. Tie width, heel height, pants leg style, and flamboyance or conservatism in men’s fashions also fit the trends in the stock market. 7
The report listed 25 areas of cultural expression that manifest differently in different mood trends. In areas of politics and fashion (listed below, emphasis ours), positive social mood trends produce individualism, and negative mood trends produce social conformity:
We can now add trends in choices for babies’ names to the list.
Songwriters listen up: Songs about names can hitch a ride on pop culture’s currents. Johnny Cash recorded Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue” in 1969, which was early in the 17-year mood decline. The song tells the story of a young man’s quest to find and punish his father for naming him Sue. The father did it to toughen up the boy, and his son was indeed bullied and ridiculed. The song tapped into a nascent bear-market backlash against odd names. It became Cash’s biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and spent three weeks at number two. It also topped country music and adult contemporary charts in 1969 and earned Silverstein a Grammy Award in 1970. The song ends like this:
And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!8
Socionomics suggests that parents’ tendency to choose ordinary names during bear markets reflects an evolutionary survival tactic: Blend with the herd in times of fear and uncertainty. It is logical that during bear markets, parents unconsciously fear that an unusual name could hurt their children’s future job prospects or ability to fit in. During bull markets, on the other hand, parents feel that an unusual name will help their children stand out in a positive way. In this fashion, name conformity is another unconscious response to the waxing and waning of society’s appetite for risk.
The mood-name relationship demonstrated in Figure 2 allows us to forecast that declining social mood will produce less-risky, more-conformist baby names in coming bear-market years. As a corollary, we should see aggregate moves away from flamboyance in everything from fashion to architecture.
THE SOCIONOMIC PERSPECTIVE CAN HELP SOCIOLOGISTS
Sociologists often uncover behaviors they can’t fully explain. The authors of the second study, “How You Named Your Child,” wrote, “As yet we do not have a complete explanation for why the situational factors contribute to peaks and reversals in the actual name data.” The authors of the third study, “Fitting In…” lament that data on the “cultural practices, social behaviors, and psychological processes linked to individualism [are] historically limited because psychological measures are relatively recent, often not beginning until the 1970s.” But socionomists propose that stock prices are a psychological measure. Prechter recognized the significance of stocks to the social sciences three decades ago:
The market has a life of its own … . It is mass human psychology that is registering its changes in the barometer known as the DJIA. This idea helps to explain the cause of future events: changes in the mass emotional outlook. That’s what comes first. The market is a mirror of the forces, whatever they may be, which are affecting humanity both in and out of the market arena.9
—The Elliott Wave Theorist, August 3, 1979
Socionomics will eventually help social scientists who are hindered by a flawed paradigm. The three naming studies described above pointed us to a new sociometer. More sociometers await discovery. Any broad data that track non-rational social activity are likely to parallel stock prices. We also expect to see an increasing number of academic studies skirt the edges of socionomics. And someday, perhaps they will start there.
1Dotinga, R. (2009, May 5). Fad baby names tend to fizzle fast. Healthday News. Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/brain-and-behavior/articles/2009/05/05/fad-baby-names-tend-to-fizzle-fast.html
2Prechter, R. (1999). The wave principle of human social behavior and the new science of socionomics. Gainesville, GA, USA: New Classics Library.
3,4Gureckis, T. Goldstone, R. (2009). How you named your child: understanding the relationship between individual decision-making and collective outcomes. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1 (2009), 651, 652, 668.
5,6Twenge, J. Abebe, E. Campbell, K. (2010). Fitting in or standing out: trends in american parents’ choices for children’s names, 1880-2007. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1(1) 19-25, 20-21.
7 Prechter, R. (1985, August). Elliott Wave Theorist special report, “Popular culture and the stock market”, 17.
8Silverstein, S. (1969). A boy named sue. Retrieved from http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnnycash/aboynamedsue.html
9Prechter, R. (1979, August). Elliott Wave Theorist, 8.
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Most economists, historians and sociologists
presume that events determine society’s mood. But socionomics hypothesizes
the opposite: that social mood regulates the character of social events. The
events of history—such as investment booms and busts, political events,
macroeconomic trends and even peace and war—are the products of a naturally
occurring pattern of social-mood fluctuation. Such events, therefore, are not
randomly distributed, as is commonly believed, but are in fact probabilistically
predictable. Socionomics also posits that the stock market is the best available
meter of a society’s aggregate mood, that news is irrelevant to social
mood, and that financial and economic decision-making are fundamentally different
in that financial decisions are motivated by the herding impulse while economic
choices are guided by supply and demand. For more information about socionomic
theory, see (1) the text, The
Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior © 1999, by Robert Prechter;
(2) the introductory documentary History's
Hidden Engine; (3) the video Toward
a New Science of Social Prediction, Prechter’s 2004 speech before
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