Fads and Fashions

Karen M Douglas. Encyclopedia of Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. Editor: John M Levine & Michael A Hogg. Sage Publication. 2010.

Fads are objects or activities that are popular with a group of people over a short period of time. Fads are also known as crazes. Fashions are a related phenomenon and are defined as objects or activities that become popular within larger groups over longer periods of time. Fashions are also known as trends. Researchers argue that people follow fads and fashions as a result of both informational social influence (where they incorporate useful information from others about what is acceptable and desirable) and normative social influence (where they adopt the acceptable behavior or desired object so that they themselves are accepted and liked by others). By following fads and fashions people can also assert their identity.

History and Background

During the 17th century in the Netherlands, the demand for tulip bulbs reached such a peak that astronomical prices were charged for a single bulb, and people were prepared to pay an enormous proportion of their earnings to own this most desired object. The most famous example of this tulipomania was a bulb reportedly sold for f1. 6,000 in the 1620s, when the average annual income of the time was fl. 150. While this is an extreme example, it is illustrative of the phenomenon we popularly know today as a fad. Tulipomania lasted for a short period of time, but during this period it caused a craze that swept through a society and left many people financially ruined.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, many more familiar and less dramatic examples of fads have existed. For example, most children in the 1950s owned a hula hoop, but these are rarely seen in the playgrounds of the 2000s. In the early 1980s, many children owned a Rubik’s cube. Fads can also be seen outside the realm of consumerism. For example, the social networking site Facebook is rapidly growing in popularity, with over 70 million visits recorded in a single month in 2008 and hundreds of thousands of new users joining each day. Also, the discipline of psychology is not immune from research fads that last for a short period and then fade in popularity as new research topics take their place.

The two concepts of fad and fashion are often difficult to tease apart, and there appears to be little consensus amongst psychologists concerning where a fad ends and a fashion begins. Indeed, one dictionary definition of a fad is a temporary fashion, idea, and/or behavior assumed by a group. Generally, though, it is accepted that fads are short-lived, and that the process of adopting the object or activity of a particular fad over alternatives is rather arbitrary. For example, why were hula hoops, and not some equally fun alternative, the most popular toys of their time?

In contrast to fads, fashions are seen as having a sustained influence on society and a broader reach, often across multiple societies. For example, the hippie fashions lasted for a significant period of time during the 1960s and ’70s and were followed by people throughout the world. In addition, fashions, unlike fads, are characterized by people in a group sharing a look or style. In other words, a clear trend is noticeable among group members, who alter their appearance to reflect what is collectively perceived as appropriate and stylish at any given time. Although fashions can last for extended periods of time, they are inevitably replaced by new fashions that render the old ones outdated—at least until they return when the fashion industry again proclaims them fashionable. This is not uncommon, and it is another important feature of fashion. Although some fashions run their course and disappear forever, some return from obscurity after several years and become part of the “cycle of fashion.”

Fads, Fashions, and Social Influence

People are influenced by fads and fashions through two processes of social influence: informational social influence and normative social influence. Informational social influence occurs when people’s choice to follow a norm is informed by the choices and decisions of others. Normative social influence occurs when people’s choice to follow a norm is driven by the desire to be part of a group (and avoid rejection and exclusion) or to achieve a positive social outcome such as being liked or accepted by a desirable group.

Informational Social Influence

Informational social influence is the mechanism by which people gain important information from others that subsequently guides their behavior. If as a result of informational influence people follow fads or fashions, it is because the behaviors of others have convinced them that doing so is a good choice.

A study by Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds, and Duncan Watts in 2006 illustrates informational influence in making fashionable music choices. Salganik and his colleagues simulated an online center for downloading music. After agreeing to take part in a study of musical preferences, participants were assigned to either a control condition, where they chose which out of a list of 48 songs they wanted to listen to, or an experimental condition, where they chose the songs they wanted to listen to after seeing the number of downloads each song had received from other people who had visited the site. It was found that in the experimental condition, visitors to the site paid attention to the download activities of others, and their choices were influenced by the choices of others. Popular songs were more popular in the experimental condition than in the control condition, and less popular songs were less popular. Participants in the experimental condition therefore used informational social influence to navigate the site and increase their chances of finding the good songs.

Normative Social Influence

People can also follow fads and fashions when they want to “go with the crowd” or feel part of a group. Following trends is one way in which people can gain the approval of others who are important to them. For example, decorating one’s house in a particular fashion might make it easier to be accepted into a desirable social circle. Similarly, wearing particular clothes at school might increase a student’s chances of being accepted by a desirable peer group.

Also, conforming to normative social influence means that people can avoid some of the negative consequences that might result from standing out from the crowd. Resisting group pressure can lead to disapproval from others, negative interactions with other group members, and ultimately rejection or even ostracism by the group. If membership in the group is important, then conforming to the fashion norms of the group is one way for individuals to retain the group’s good opinion.

Fashion and Identity

Related to the notion of conforming to group norms, adhering to particular fashions can also be a way for people to signal their group membership to others. This is particularly the case for widespread fashions that are adopted by specific groups, or subgroups of individuals. Such conformity can evoke positive feelings in people, in that identifying with a personally valued group is good for self-esteem. In displaying their identity through fashion, people also become associated with a particular group membership, and other people then make judgments about them based on their membership in that group.

For example, wearing Goth clothing and makeup signifies to outsiders that a person is most probably a Goth. Identifying him- or herself as a Goth might improve a person’s self-esteem. At the same time, others will make judgments about this person based on his or her Goth attire—for example, that he or she is morbid and likes “dark music,” because this fashion is an identity marker associated with a specific set of norms and values. In cases like these, where a fashion is shared by a small group of people, the people adopting the fashion can even be seen as nonconformists. However, some psychologists would argue that this is still a case of normative group influence—in this case, however, people are conforming to a subgroup norm instead of a mainstream norm.

Organizational Fashions

A good example of how trends fluctuate and how fashions spread or diffuse can be seen in fashions in the promotion and use of particular management techniques within and across organizations. In 1999, Eric Abrahamson and his colleagues studied how the popularity of trends in management practices (collective beliefs about the effectiveness and appropriate use of cutting-edge management techniques) is determined by the discourse surrounding such techniques. They argue that the success and life of an organizational fashion is also determined by the discourse surrounding it. This idea explains why some fashions might be successful and longlasting, and some may not. It also explains how some fashions may be institutionalized or adopted in the first place, and why some may be dismissed as mere fads.

In particular, Abrahamson and his colleagues argue that variability in when advocates begin, continue, and stop promoting organizational fashions can explain variability in the fashions’ lifecycles. Also, combinations of forces both within and outside the management-fashion market can trigger, promote, and diffuse management fashions. Finally, the success and longevity of management fashions can be determined by the emotionality of the discourse surrounding them. Emotionally charged, unreasoned, and enthusiastic discourse characterizes the upswings or successes of fashions. On the other hand, unemotional, reasoned, and qualified discourse characterizes the downswings or lack of success of organizational practices.

Fads, Fashions, and Body Image

Another good example of fluctuating trends can be seen in women’s and men’s responses to social norms concerning body image. In a study conducted in the 1980s, Brett Silverstein and her colleagues examined the standard female body size/ shape in American magazines from 1901 to 1981. Their results show significant changes in the female body shape over the years. For example, in the 1940s and 1950s the images were characterized by curvaceous women like Marilyn Monroe, whereas in the 1960s the images of women changed to the reed-thin ideal exemplified by British fashion model Twiggy.

It is important to note, however, that like all fashions, ideal body weight is culture-specific. A study of 54 cultures, conducted by Judith Anderson and her colleagues in the 1990s, illustrates this point clearly. Across these cultures, Anderson and her colleagues measured people’s ideal female body (heavy, moderate, or slender). They also analyzed how reliable the food source was in each culture. Interestingly, body size varied according to the reliability of the food source. Specifically, in cultures where food resources were stable, a slender female body shape was preferred. However, in cultures where the food supply was unreliable, a heavier shape was preferred—perhaps because it indicated that the woman was likely to be healthy and fertile.

Men are not exempt from the change in the physical ideal over time. Harrison Pope and his colleagues found some evidence for a changing ideal male body in their analysis of GI Joe dolls’ bicep, chest, and waist measurements from the 1960s to 1990s—these showed a significant increase in muscularity over the four decades. In another study, Pope and his colleagues asked men in the United States, France, and Austria to alter computer images of male bodies to match their actual body shape, their ideal shape, and the shape that women would find most attractive. While they were accurate about their own shape, participants’ ideal and most attractive shapes differed significantly from their own body shape—overall they chose more muscular body shapes.

There is a great deal of concern about the fashion for certain ideal body shapes. Some studies show that young women perceive themselves as overweight when they are not, and that these women are dissatisfied with their normal (or even slim) body shapes because they do not conform to the thin ideal portrayed in the media. Likewise, the muscular ideal for male figures has been linked to feelings of pressure in adolescent and young adult males. Some study results suggest that young men are changing their eating habits in order to “bulk up” to meet the muscular ideal, which sometimes also entails the use of substances such as steroids. Following fashion therefore does not necessarily have positive consequences.