A Philosopher's Blog

The Secret to Artistic Success is…Luck

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 7, 2014
The Mona Lisa.

The Mona Lisa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a writer and someone who teaches an Aesthetics course, the cause of artistic success is a matter that I find rather interesting. When I was an undergraduate I was involved in a faculty-student debate about artificial intelligence. In the course of the debate, I defended free will. The professor on the other side made an interesting point in claiming that I believed in free will because I wanted credit for my success. That remark stuck with me and I found it applied elsewhere, such as matters of luck (that is, chance that turns out favorable or unfavorable).

Since I have been a gamer for quite some time, I am well aware of the role (or roll) of chance in success. However, as the professor noted, I wanted credit for my successes and hence while I acknowledged the role of luck, I tended to minimalize its role. However, after having some modest success with my books and teaching Aesthetics for years, I came to accept the view that luck (that is, favorable chance) has a large role in success. Of course, this was a largely unsupported view. Fortunately, Princeton’s Matthew Salganik decided to investigate the matter of success and had the resources to do so.

In order to determine the role of chance in success Salganik created nine identical online worlds. He then distributed the 30,000 teens he had recruited for his experiment among these virtual worlds.  Each group of teens was exposed to the same 48 songs from emerging artists that were unknown to the teens. In return, the teens were able to download the songs they liked best free of charge.

One world was set up as the control world—in this world the teens were isolated from social influence because they could not see what songs their fellows were downloading. In the other eight worlds, they could see which songs were being downloaded—which informed them of what the other teens regarded as worth downloading.

This experiment was certainly well designed: each world is identical at the start and the test subjects (the teenagers) were randomly assigned to the worlds.  Given the quality and size of the experiment, the results can be safely regarded as statistically significant.

Given that the same 48 songs were available in each world, if quality was the defining factor for success, then it would seem to follow that each world should be fairly similar in terms of which songs were downloaded the most. However, Salganik found that the worlds varied a great deal. For example, 52 Metro’s song “Lock Down” was first in one world and 40th in another world. Salganik concluded that “small, random initial differences” were magnified by “social influence and cumulative advantage.” In short, chance was the decisive factor in the outcome. As a gamer, I certainly appreciated these findings and could easily visualize modelling this process with some dice and charts—like in games such as Pathfinder and D&D.

Lest it be thought that chance is the sole factor, Salganik found that quality does have some role in success—but much less than one might suspect. Based on additional experiments, he found that succeeding with a work of poor quality is rather hard but that once a certain basic level of quality is achieved, then success is primarily a matter of chance.

In terms of the specific mechanism of artistic success, a group of people will as a matter of random chance decide that a work is good. The attention of this group will attract more attention and this process will continue. Those who are drawn by the attention seem to engage in the reasoning that the work must be good and special because all the other people seem to believe that it is good and special. However, the work was

Interestingly enough, Leo Tolstoy seemed to have hit on a similar idea—although he obviously lacked the means to run the sort of experiment conducted by Salganik.  As Tolstoy said, “a work that pleases a certain circle of people is accepted as art, then a definition of art is devised to cover these productions.”  Tolstoy believed that approach failed to distinguish between good and bad art and thus he regarded it as flawed. With a tweak, this can be used to capture Salganik’s findings: “a work that pleases a certain circle of people is accepted as good, then it is believed by others to be special.”

Interestingly enough, the sort of “reasoning” that Salganik’s experiment seems to have shown is the Appeal to Popularity fallacy: this is the “reasoning” that because something is popular, it follows that it is good/correct. It also nicely matches the similar Bandwagon fallacy: that because something is winning, it follows that it is good/correct. Not surprisingly, this is grounded in the cognitive bias known as the Bandwagon Effect: people have a psychological tendency to align their thinking with other people. In the case of Salganik’s experiment, the participants aligned their thinking in terms of their aesthetic preference and thus created a bandwagon effect. The effect is rather like the stereotype of the avalanche: a small, random event can set off a massive tide. Given that the process of selection is essentially not a rational assessment of quality but rather driven by cognitive bias and (perhaps) fallacious reasoning it certainly makes sense that the outcomes would be decided largely by chance. The same, if his experiment extends by analogy, would seem to hold true of the larger world.


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11 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on March 7, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Red Ice Radio – Gavan Kearney – Hour 1 – The State of the Art, Corrosive Counter-Culture

    “We’ll discuss the marketing of corrosive counter-culture modern art and the attack on beauty. Gavan discusses the cult of personality around empty artists that have put focus on rot and death. Art is degenerating into nothing but sensationalism. The success of modern art is judged by how much attention it can get and consequently the more subversive, disgusting and pornographic it is, the more the attention it gets by the “critics” and media pundits. Shock factor is mistaken for greatness. Gavan asks what happened to art that conveys beauty, holds veneration for life and is inspirational. Kearney says that the Frankfurt School has been instrumental in turning art into crude smut and emptiness. In the second hour, we discuss the origin of modern art and the movement of symbolic art. We discuss the conspiratorial aspect of art, including how the totalitarian state has used it for propaganda…”

  2. TJB said, on March 7, 2014 at 10:16 am

    Rebecca Black could not be reached for comment.

  3. WTP said, on March 7, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Is there a more absurd waste of time than for someone who does not believe in free will arguing with someone who does? It’s a self-defeating position. If you truly believe that there is no such thing as free will, why bother? It’s like teaching a cat to sing. It’s a waste of time and it annoys the cat.

    • apollonian said, on March 7, 2014 at 3:26 pm

      Remember Socrates Who Taught Unexamined Life Not Worth Living

      I will take up ur challenge and submit it is NOT NOT NOT a “waste of time” to consider meaning and implications of “free” will vs. determinism (absolute cause-effect). Remember Socrates who taught the unexamined life not being worth living.

      Thus we begin w. definition, necessary starting pt. for any discussion, whence I’d agree humans have will, but it couldn’t be perfectly “free,” certainly not like God’s, the only will, actually, being God’s will, absolute cause-effect, humans mere “sinners,” creatures of self-interest (will, though limited). Note also the greatest sin of HUBRIS (according to the Greeks)–pretending to being God, possessed of a perfectly “free” will, etc.

      Thus hubristic pretense to such perfectly “free” will is observed in Pharisaism, self-righteousness, sanctimony, known in Christianity as Pelagian heresy, pretending to achieving heaven by means of works, St. Paul, St. Augustine, and later Martin Luther explaining we’re hopelessly doomed to heck, only God’s grace and mercy giving us salvation.

      Psychologic effects of hubristic, perfectly “free” will is observed in the typical guilt-complex and depression when one finds one’s will inadequate to changing reality, reality taking its inevitable course REGARDLESS of puny human will, manipulation, or wishful thinking–which is the imaginary, perfectly “free” will.

      Thus the determinist, hence Christian, view of reality is best, most healthy and satisfying, free of guilt-complex and depression, for examples–and note these are quite PRACTICAL considerations. Thus is Socrates so brilliantly and well -vindicated for his advice about proper examination of human existence.

  4. […] The Secret to Artistic Success is…Luck […]

  5. apollonian said, on March 7, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Artistic “Success”?–Is Reality-Based And Depends Upon Society’s Appreciation, Commercial Success Follows

    I like Mike’s art for blog essays: they bring-up a broad-enough subject-matter which can be fairly easily discussed, often in free-wheeling manner. Thus we consider the subject of Art and then the element of chance or luck. But Mike’s essay suffers (but not fatally) for clear definitions.

    So what’s “art,” anyway?–I like Ayn Rand’s definition: “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” See http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/art.html.

    Mike then errs when he confuses artistic success w. commercial success, this commerce appealing to whatever chance fads may happen to occupy or dominate the mass mentality of people who may not be too significant for serious art. For art is surely something that stands the test of time. Same goes for Mike’s experimental example of Matt Salganik which is mainly significant for psychology, much less for actual art, I suspect.

    And “chance” can easily be disposed of by reference to determinist nature of reality.

    So again, I submit art is that which stands test of time–regardless of a bunch of air-heads chosen at random who all think alike, having been trained to doing so by “politically-correct” public edjumacation and thought-control–which Mike knows all about as one of the foremost experts, surely.

    Another note is Mike admits he insists upon (perfectly, I presume) “free” will as he demands “credit”–this, I submit, because he begins w. the premise of inferiority-complex whence he needs and requires “credit” as way of justifying or asserting himself–same w. “good” beginning in guilt-complex, “guilt” understood, ironically, as a mark of good as this “guilt” then impels one towards the compensation of “good” and “merit,” etc.

  6. WTP said, on March 7, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    TJ/Magus, do you notice how Mike frequently starts an essay pointing out how he has been a strong defender of free will in the past, yet more often than not the conclusion of the essay tends to undermine the concept of free will?

    Additionally, there are numerous flaws with this “experiment” such that extending its findings into the real world would be quite problematic. Either of you (or Mike) care to discuss?

    • T. J. Babson said, on March 7, 2014 at 9:15 pm

      There are lots of problems with the experiment, and while it is suggestive I don’t think any reliable conclusions can be drawn.

      For example, there seems to be some deep conceptual errors regarding the difference between randomness and sensitivity to initial conditions. Also, there is the question of how representative an online world of teens is to the world at large.

      As to free will–we know from quantum mechanics that the world is not perfectly deterministic, so if philosophers want to talk about determinism that is no different from someone claiming the earth is 5000 years old.

      • apollonian said, on March 8, 2014 at 11:08 am

        TJB: what do u actually know, and what can u actually tell us about “quantum mechanics”?–practically zilch?–ho ho ho–I thought so.

        And u obviously forgot I explained to u scientific experimentation, like all science itself, is founded necessarily and by definition upon the objective, hence determinist premise. Hence no possible finding or conclusion could possibly dis-prove the major premise, objectivity and determinism. This is simple logic, TJB; u need to think about what u’re saying.

    • WTP said, on March 8, 2014 at 8:55 am

      Yes, the use of teenagers is probably the most glaring flaw. The one demographic most succeptable to peer pressure. The group with the least experience thinking for themselves, thus constantly looking to others for validation of their beliefs.

  7. Roy Dan Baron said, on March 8, 2014 at 2:32 pm

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