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How does something come into fashion?

Bell-bottoms were all the rage once upon a time. So were Pokemon Go, going to the mall, and doing the Kiki challenge. Ok, maybe the Kiki challenge still is. But not for long.

Writers on Medium are constantly looking to write about topics that attract a lot of attention. Fashion designers are constantly looking to set the trend in terms of the kind of clothes and accessories people want to flaunt. Movie directors are looking to make the most relevant movies of the time. And so on.

Everyone is looking to do things, buy things, befriend the right people and associate themselves with the right brands so as to signal to the rest of the world about their affiliations.

At the core of it, people do it because they want to show their tribe that they belong, that they are cool, that they are better than others, that they stand out.

This has been happening in some form or another from thousands of years ago. Tribal people of old used to wear their clothes (or leaves) a certain way, cover their faces with a certain kind of mark or design, wear their hair a certain way (or shave it off completely) in order to signal to the rest of the people in their own tribe that they belonged and wouldn't defect and signal to the rest of the world that they stood for something they believed in.

Criminals used to do the same with tattoos before tattoos became more mainstream. Someone that bore the tattoo of a gang showed enough commitment to be permanently affiliated with that gang, because there was no way any other gang would take him on when he bore a rival gang's tattoo. And he was likely not an informant either.

Our own choices of what we wish to affiliate with - what brands of clothes, accessories, cars, etc that we buy, what kind of movies we watch, what books we read, what places we work at, what religions we follow, what hairstyles we adopt - all have this kind of signaling at their core.

That is why we do what we do. To signal the rest of the world about our intentions and affiliations.

Of course, we don't do this consciously, at least not most of the time. This kind of behaviour is ingrained in our intuition evolutionally. We have evolved to behave this way because that is what has helped our species (and other species that live in groups/societies) survive and thrive.

So how does one thing come into fashion and not another? Why does one brand get preferred or one kind of an act go viral (Kiki challenge) while others fall flat and fail to take off?

To answer that, let's look internally in our own heads first. We process information in modules. We have a threat detection module that takes certain inputs from our environment and indicates to the brain whether we are in danger or not. We have an energy consumption module that takes certain inputs and indicates to the brain whether something is worth consuming right now or not. And so on.

So, when you see two perfectly ordinary pieces of chocolate where one is labelled 'Poison' and the other is labelled 'Chocolate' and you have seen someone you trust tell you that both pieces are the same and perfectly safe and that they are simply putting random labels on it, you still select the one labelled 'Chocolate' and leave the one labelled 'Poison' behind most of the time. And this has been an experimentally verified result.

This is because all our modules process the same input - two pieces of chocolate each with its own label - and send their own recommendations to the brain. While the threat module prefers the one labelled 'Chocolate' over the one labelled 'Poison', all other modules have no preference between the two. So, there is a slightly higher probability that the brain picks the one labelled 'Chocolate' despite knowing that both are the same.

Extending this to the people we encounter, we are constantly getting inputs on what each person we encounter (in real life, celebrities, over the Internet, etc) prefers. And when one of them endorses a particular brand or an action, that acts on the probabilities shifting them slightly in favour of one.

Every person is constantly evaluating such probabilities and a change in one person can cause a chain reaction increasing probabilities in others.

And this is how something goes viral.

Of course, this kind of a probability evaluation is aided by other evaluations in terms of functional utility, cost, etc and when those other factors start to become equal, this probability evaluation due to our intent for signaling takes importance in decision making.

When you are spending money advertising your product, know that you are only playing on this probability evaluation and nothing more. And it works best when you at least match the offering of your competition. Otherwise, you need to spend more to overcome the drawbacks in the offering.

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