The Social Psychology Behind Fashion

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017, 5:00 pm

What are the most interesting ways signaling theory has shaped our contemporary culture? originally appeared on Quora – the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insightsAnswer by Judith Donath, author of The Social Machine and former director of the Sociable Media Group, on Quora.

One quite interesting way that signaling has shaped the contemporary human world is the rise of fashion, in clothing, but also in many other areas, including slang, car styling, management theories, programming languages, painting styles, etc. Like many costly signals, fashion appears frivolous and wasteful: why do we feel a need to continually replace perfectly good things with something new and different?

My hypothesis is that fashion is a signal of one’s skill with information — of one’s access to it and one’s ability to distinguish good information from bad. To be at the forefront of new fashions you have to both be privy to knowing what is new and upcoming and also be able to distinguish which is going to be the next cool new thing from something that is merely odd and different. The cost in fashion is the risk of making a mistake, of adopting the wrong thing.

The rate of change in fashion, the acceleration of information, moves faster and faster. Around the time of the birth of fashion around the 15th century information moved very slowly. It could take a year for the information about what was being worn in the courts of Paris to reach a princess in Poland. Today fashion moves around the globe instantaneously and fashion changes faster and faster. On the negative side, fashion thus creates tremendous waste, understanding the motivation behind it is key to ameliorating this problem.

But fashion is also closely related to innovation adoption. We can think of them as orthogonal phenomena: a pure fashion has no practical utility and is adopted solely for signaling social position while the ideal innovation is all utility, adopted for its usefulness. Understanding their interplay helps us understand why new ideas do and do not spread.