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Flavor of the Month

10:41 a.m., May 22, 2006--Joel Best, professor and chairperson of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, talks to UDaily about fads. His new book is Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads, published by the University of California Press.

So, why do smart people fall for fads?

Part of the reason is that nothing ever seems like a fad while its popularity is growing. It's seen as the way of the future, a genuine innovation that will help solve a big problem. Diet and exercise programs, teaching methods, business management systems, ways to reduce crime-in all kinds of areas, when something new comes along that might be a solution to a problem, people don't want to be seen as standing in the way of progress, so they jump on the bandwagon. Also, a lot of the attraction of a fad is that if you embrace it early, then you feel that you're ahead of other people, that you're hipper and maybe smarter than they are.

And, of course, not everything that spreads quickly turns out to be a fad.

How do you define a fad?

It's a short-lived enthusiasm, which follows a three-part cycle of emerging or beginning, then surging in popularity, then purging or collapsing. That's different from a genuine innovation that surges to its peak of popularity but then, instead of dropping abruptly out of favor as a fad does, levels off and remains in common use. That's a process we call diffusion.

For example, you wouldn't call the telephone or television a fad because hardly anyone got one of those devices when they were first becoming popular and then decided to get rid of it. It's when the popularity peaks and then abruptly drops off that you have a fad.

There's the perception that fads are silly or trivial, like the hula hoop or Cabbage Patch dolls, but I think it's mistake to think of them that way. In my book, I focus on what I call institutional fads, such as business management or educational methods, which are short-term enthusiasms in serious institutions. Those types of fads can cost a great deal in terms of time and money, so you can't consider them trivial.

What are some examples of institutional fads?

In the corporate world, we've had fads such as quality circles, which were supposed to solve U.S. management problems by using methods that were similar to those that had been successful in Japanese businesses. Companies embraced quality circles in the 1980s, but they then fell out of favor.

In education, there's been a cycle in which children were taught to read using phonics, then educators abandoned phonics for a whole-language approach, and later they returned to phonics.

Even medicine, which generally waits for scientific evidence, has experienced fads. The diagnosis of multiple-personality disorder was described in 1791 but remained extremely rare. Then, in the 1980s, psychiatrists diagnosed thousands of cases in the U.S. Since then, the diagnosis has dropped off again.

Is there a way to tell if a newly popular item or idea is a fad or a true innovation that will last?

No. During the surge in popularity leading up to the peak, both a lasting innovation and a fad look the same, and you can always convince yourself that what you're seeing is going to stick around. You have to wait and see what happens, maybe over a period of a few years.

If a new idea seems effective, doesn't that mean it's more likely to stick around? In other words, don't fads lose their popularity because they don't work?

Not really. All sorts of factors are at work. One example is the DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] program, which is taught around fifth grade to children all over the United States. Police officers go into the schools and teach the dangers of drugs. They lead kids through activities designed to help them stand up to peer pressure and avoid getting involved in drug use. There's a lot of long-term evidence that having taken part in a DARE program has no effect on whether kids end up using drugs as they get older. But, the program hasn't gone away. In fact, it's extremely popular with law enforcement, parents, teachers and almost everyone else, even though it doesn't seem to be achieving its goals.

At the same time, there are a lot of different diet plans that will help you lose weight, but after the initial enthusiasm, people get bored or have other problems sticking to them. Low-calorie plans get replaced by low-fat, then by low-carb or South Beach, then by something else. Each of these plans probably does work if you stick with it, but it still falls out of favor.

Joel Best, professor and chairperson of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice
Are Americans particularly susceptible to fads?

Yes, American society has a strong belief in progress and perfectibility, and that makes us vulnerable to any idea that promises both of those qualities.

A particular method of teaching reading might be quite effective for most children, but because it's not perfect-some children aren't learning to read, or at least not on schedule-education is susceptible to fads. Teaching methods cycle in and out of popularity, with each change being hailed as the perfect solution, when in reality, there may never be a single method that works for everyone. I think that whatever method is being used, there will be some kids who don't learn to read with that approach, and that will cause people to look for something different and better.

Cultures and institutions that are more controlled by tradition and ritual are less susceptible to fads.

But progress is a good thing, isn't it?

Of course it is, but progress doesn't always come in a single, sudden breakthrough that gets lots of attention from the media and the public.

In my classes, I use the example of traffic fatalities, which have declined in this country over the last 40 years. There's been a significant improvement, especially when you consider the increases in the number of cars on the road and in the amount of miles people drive. Did this happen because we implemented a national “war on traffic fatalities” that fixed the problem overnight? No, we nibbled away at it: Cars got seat belts, then air bags; the shoulders of roads got wider; highway signage got better; we cracked down on drunken driving. Each of these initiatives improved the situation somewhat, but none of them was solely responsible.

It's not that progress or even perfection is out of our grasp, but we need to find a middle ground between refusing to change and seizing on every novelty that comes along.

How can we avoid being taken in by fads?

Fads can fool us, but the best way to become fad-proof is to continue to insist on persuasive evidence.

I came up with that guideline and four others for fad-proofing yourself, which are to remember what happened before, especially in an institution that has embraced short-lived enthusiasms in the past; to be skeptical about astonishing claims; to avoid focusing on the fear of being left behind; and to remember that when people become disillusioned with fads, they rarely broadcast that fact the way they may have publicized the fad when they first got on the bandwagon.

As I say in the book, if somebody whispers that the emperor is naked, you need to be listening.

What's going on now that we'll someday see as fads?

I can't pinpoint any current enthusiasm as definitely being a fad. A lot of people thought that tattoos and body piercing would be fads because they seemed so outlandish, but it's been a number of years now, and they're still popular.

However, I will say that I'd be very surprised if, 10 years from now, we still are placing such a strong emphasis on standardized testing as the way to solve the problems in elementary and secondary education.

Have there been fads in which you jumped on the bandwagon?

In the summer of 1958, my parents bought my brother and me hula hoops. By the end of that year, 25 million had been sold-one for every seven Americans-so that was an enormous fad. And, of course, I've bought my share of faddish gadgets, tried different diets and exercise programs and so on.

Article by Ann Manser
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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