Experimental epidemiology: The work of Chip Heath

The aim of the post is to bring to the attention of experimentally minded anthropologists the work of Chip Heath and his collaborators. A professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Heath describes his research as examinining "why certain ideas – ranging from urban legends to folk medical cures, from Chicken Soup for the Soul stories to business strategy myths – survive and prosper in the social marketplace of ideas." Heath has a knack for fun psychology experiments that test broader concepts of cultural transmission. In chronological order, here are some examples from his recent publications–I'll bet that many of you will find stuff that is relevant to your own research or ideas for how to test your own hypotheses.



Bangerter, A., & Heath, C. (2004). The Mozart effect: Tracking the evolution of a scientific legend. British Journal of Social Psychology, 43(4), 605-623.

In this paper, the authors look at the "Mozart effect", the belief that listening to classical music increases IQ. Among their many findings, they show that this effect spread more in states that had more education problems: anxiety regarding the ability to teach kids made people more receptive to such solutions.

Fragale, A. R., & Heath, C. (2004). Evolving informational credentials: The (mis) attribution of believable facts to credible sources. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(2), 225.

In an interesting variation on the source memory experiments, the authors demonstrate a nice example of ‘motivated' source attribution. For instance, "When participants believed a particular suspect to be guilty, they misattributed evidence incriminating that suspect to the high-credibility source."

Berger, J. A., & Heath, C. (2005). Idea habitats: How the prevalence of environmental cues influences the success of ideas. Cognitive Science, 29(2), 195-221.

In a series of experiment, the authors show that the success of different cultural items (catchphrases, proverbs, etc.) will be strongly linked to their ‘habitat': the contexts in which they are relevant. Thus, they show that the success of ideas shrinks or increases with fluctuations in the prevalence of their natural habitat, and that those ideas that have a wider habitat are more successful.

Berger, J., & Heath, C. (2007). Where consumers diverge from others: Identity signaling and product domains. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(2), 121-134.
Berger, J., & Heath, C. (2008). Who drives divergence? Identity-signaling, outgroup dissimilarity, and the abandonment of cultural tastes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(3), 593-607.
Berger, J., Heath, C., & Ho, B. (2008). Divergence in cultural practices: Tastes as Signals of Identity. Manuscript in preparation.

In this set of papers, the authors show that our tastes are influenced not only by who we want to be like, but also by who we want to not be like. They develop an interesting model of taste as a form of signaling, predicting that we change our tastes when the signal they convey shifts or becomes noisy.

Fast, N. J., Heath, C., & Wu, G. (2009). Common Ground and Cultural Prominence: How Conversation Reinforces Culture. Psychological Science, 20(7), 904-911.

When people start interacting with people they don't know, they will try to find some common ground. This process (among others) maintains the prominence of some cultural products. For instance, people who are already famous for some reason are more likely to be talked about than other people with similar accomplishment because they make for better common ground.

Loewenstein, J., & Heath, C. (2009). The Repetition-Break Plot Structure: A Cognitive Influence on Selection in the Marketplace of Ideas. Cognitive Science, 33(1), 1-19.

People form predictions based on a succession of samples very easily. Violations of these predictions typically carry an extra relevance. This papers show that this basic cognitive phenomenon can explain the success of jokes and folktales that have a pattern of "repetition-break", as in the following (stolen from the paper):

A rabbit is hopping happily through the forest. On his way, he meets a giraffe who is about to smoke marijuana. The rabbit says to the giraffe, ‘‘Giraffe, you shouldn't pollute your neck and hurt your lungs inhaling that harmful stuff! Let's breathe in the fresh air as we jog through the forest.'' The giraffe pauses, drops the marijuana, and follows the rabbit.
A little further through the forest, they meet an elephant about to snort cocaine. The rabbit says to the elephant, ‘‘Elephant, why do you want to ruin your precious trunk with that sinful powder? Sniff the spring flowers instead. Come jog with us and enjoy Mother Nature.'' The elephant spills out the cocaine and jogs with the rabbit and giraffe.
Then they meet a lion who is about to use heroin. The rabbit says to the lion, ‘‘Lion, you're the king of the forest! Isn't that enough of a ‘‘high'' for you? Join us for an invigorating jog together through the beautiful forest.''
The lion puts down the heroin and punches the rabbit on the nose. The giraffe and the elephant exclaim, ‘‘Why do you beat him? He is so nice.'' The lion answers angrily, ‘‘Such a hooligan rabbit. Every time he takes Ecstasy, he convinces me to run with him in the forest like an idiot.''

Wiltermuth, S. S., & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony and cooperation. Psychological Science, 20(1), 1-5.

This paper is a first stab at explaining the prevalence of goose-stepping and why it can create bonds among those who take part in it. The authors observed that people who had had to act in synchrony were more likely to cooperate, even at a potential cost to themselves (in public-goods game for instance).

Some of these papers can be found there, and others there.


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