Imagine that there was no Beatles or no Beatlemania anyway, and that the Liverpool boys were just another band that never had a record deal or split up before they were a big hit. This is the premise of a professor at Harvard University Cass R. Sunstein reflects on a fun and thought-provoking essay to be published in September in the first issue of Beatles Research Journal. (A preliminary design was published online earlier this year.)

The fact that there may be an academic magazine dedicated only to John, Paul, George and Ringo is emblematic of how popular and influential the Beatles are. Many suggest that they were destined for greatness. “It was only a matter of time,” John Lennon said in an interview in 1980. But maybe not. At first, the record managers weren’t impressed (“The Boys Won’t Go,” they told manager Brian Epstein). And the group almost split up. Its members were carried down their winding path by an unusually enthusiastic manager (Epstein), risk-taking producer (George Martin), a large local fan base and more. “At the crucial moment, they were better than excellent,” said Sunstein, a fan and law and policy scholar at Harvard Law School. However, it is quite possible that “if seven or 17 things had gone differently, the Beatles would not have succeeded.”

Since the story is run only once, Sunstein cannot prove the theory that the Beatles managed with a little help from their friends. But that’s not really the point. He uses the amusing example of Beatlemania to study the effects of early social influence in other areas. Great success in business, politics, academia and most other professions is largely due to the early opportunities that allow subsequent success. “Serendipity is a bit of a black box,” Sunstein said. “You have to unpack the ingredients.”

The Kinks, another great talent that emerged in the early 1960s, never achieved the wild success of Fab Four. credit: Interfoto / Alamy Stock Photo

Duncan Wattscomputer social scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Everything is obvious: * Once you know the answer, is a fan of Sunstein’s essay. “If you can accept the idea that the Beatles can be a product of luck and cumulative advantage, other things are possible,” Watts said. “It’s good to challenge people’s intuition about the inevitability of the things we know. There are a lot of very talented people and there is a process that chooses a very small number to be super famous. ”

This process, as outlined by Sunstein, includes “information cascades” (speeches and actions of some influence the statements and actions of others), “cascades of reputation” (go along with the crowd to be liked), “network effects” (the value of a commodity increases as more people use it) and “group polarization” (groups make more extreme decisions than individuals).

In one of the few experimental examples of such processes, Watts and his colleagues showed the power of early popularity. In a 2006 experiment, they performed 48 unknown songs from unknown groups to more than 14,000 listeners. Under one condition, viewers decide for themselves which to download. Under other circumstances, they could see how many others had already downloaded each song. The best songs rarely did badly, and the worst ones rarely did well. But otherwise the results varied considerably, and “pretty much everything went back to its original popularity,” Sunstein wrote. A similar study repeated these results on political issues: a Republican issue could be turned into a problem for Democrats if they see other Democrats interested in it, and vice versa.

Literary fame is just as volatile. Novelists and poets we consider iconic today, such as Jane Austen and John Keats, have not been so highly regarded in their lives. Austin made some money from his novels, but a similar author, Mary Brunton, was much more successful. Keats died young and mostly unnoticed. Austin was then driven to lasting fame by a biography. And Brunton is now largely forgotten. As for Keats, “someone released a really good edition with [Keats’s] letters, and his letters are so wonderful, ”he says Heather Jacksonretired professor of English at the University of Toronto, who teaches lasting literary fame. “His fate fits into the myth of the neglected genius. It also helped that he writes about things that create beautiful illustrations. Entering the literary pantheon, Jackson says, requires compliance with quality and quantity thresholds, but then “random circumstances prevail.”

At the very least, everyone needs a champion. Unfortunately, many talented people never find one, says Sunstein. He quotes important work led by a Harvard economist Raj Cheti who introduced the idea of ​​the “lost Einstein” – an unknown number of people who could be innovative geniuses, but were born and raised in communities where innovation was not cultivated. For them, circumstances – such as being born into a lower-income family or a minority, or attending low-performing schools – all too often determine success or failure.

Accepting this fact can make us open the doors of opportunity more widely. It can also make us more optimistic about our own chances in life. “To think that for each of us, the road to success or failure will turn to small things that may be moved a little after we are on the lookout for them is fun and opportunity,” Sunstein said. “It can strike something like lightning, which can make a person smile on a difficult morning.

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