People’s musical choices are in uenced by the preferences of others. Election choices might be too. (

To understand the primary elections, study music. Duncan Watts, an SFI External Professor and Columbia University sociology professor, has done just that. And what he’s found is disturbing – if the purpose of the primaries is to pick the best candidate.

Duncan wondered to what extent people’s opinions are influenced by the opinions of others and how much they re ect their own tastes. So he chose a simple case to study: musical preferences.

He and his colleagues asked 14,000 people to rate their preferences among 48 songs they hadn’t heard before. He divided the listeners into nine groups. In eight of them, listeners were allowed to see the ratings of previous listeners in their group. In one group, the control group, listeners made their choices strictly on their own.

People, of course, tended to repeat the selections of their predecessors.

Duncan believes this helps explain why the winner of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries usually goes on to win the party’s nomination. Early success acts as a kind of contagion, breeding later success. But the ultimate winner may not be the candidate most people prefer based strictly on their own opinions.