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Keywords:

  • Collective and individual choice behavior;
  • Imitation;
  • Social sampling;
  • Decision making

Abstract

We examine the interdependence between individual and group behavior surrounding a somewhat arbitrary, real-world decision: selecting a name for one’s child. Using a historical database of the names given to children over the last century in the United States, we find that naming choices are influenced by both the frequency of a name in the general population, and by its ‘‘momentum’’ in the recent past in the sense that names which are growing in popularity are preferentially chosen. This bias toward rising names is a recent phenomena: In the early part of the 20th century, increasing popularity of a name from one time period to the next correlated with a decrease in future popularity. However, more recently this trend has reversed. We evaluate a number of formal models that detail how individual decision-making strategies, played out in a large population of interacting agents, can explain these empirical observations. We argue that cognitive capacities for change detection, the encoding of frequency in memory, and biases toward novel or incongruous stimuli may interact with the behavior of other decision makers to determine the distribution and dynamics of cultural tokens such as names.