A Brief Meditation on Gangnam Style
“On this site in 1897, nothing happened.”
- Plaque on wall of Woody Creek Tavern, Woody Creek, Colorado
To paraphrase the opening quote: on November 25 2012 PSY’s music video “Gangnam Style” surpassed Justin Bieber’s “Baby” to become the most viewed video on YouTube (1). As far as non-events go this one received generous media attention; it was fascinating to see a video on the Wall Street Journal website of two men discussing seriously the implications of “Gangnam Style” (2). They explain what made “Gangnam Style” the most popular Korean cultural export and how it will inspire other youtubers to be more creative. They went on to compare Bieber and PSY’s Twitter following and argue their staying power. I only wish they could have brought a prominent economist of the “talking head” variety who would describe the story as part of a growing trend: the increasing economic clout of the Asian Tiger Economies.
Journalism’s prowess to manufacture inexistent issues or problems is only second to that of the pharmaceutical industry – so why make a big deal of it. The video discussion was easy to process, vaguely intriguing but mostly bland: just like a pop song actually. Just two men giving their two cents about non-sense: probably a product of a slow news day. It was just pop-culture filler between the more meaty issues of the day. It’s all harmless banter, right?
Below we will see how a South Korean rapper flapping his hands can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. Indeed from non-events a whole universe can sprang up.
Take for example one unsuspecting investment advisor (on East Asia) browsing the Internet in her spare time. Even in respectable and well-kept online gardens like the FT.com and WSJ.com there will be some news about the “Gangnam Style” craze. YouTube will practically shove in her face the “Gangnam Style” video and its numerous derivatives. There will be a long stream of viral stories about a Gangnam Style flashmob happening somewhere. At some point the whole Internet will seem to her to be crammed with Gangnam Style references. After a prolonged exposure to all things “Gangnam Style” her investment recommendations may gradually warm up to South Korea.
There is a potent psychological effect underlying this hypothetical situation – “priming”.
“Priming” refers to an increased sensitivity to certain stimuli due to prior experience. For instance, if you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP (3). Priming effects take many forms. If the idea of EAT is currently on your mind you will be quicker than usual to recognize the word SOUP when it is spoken in a whisper or presented in a blurry font (3). “Priming effects” are like glasses that filter our reality – things on our mind are magnified while others seem distant and blurry. That is why soon-to-be fathers suddenly notice a tidal influx of baby carriages being pushed in the streets. An investor primed for “Gangnam Style” will be quick to recognise words and (alas) companies associated with South Korea. But does that mean she will actually invest in them?
This intricate plot has a second important part that is all about repetition. It’s something the Coca-Cola Company learned a long time ago – the more a symbol/sign is repeated the more positive it is perceived (4). This hypothesis has been proven in a number of experiments. Here is one: an ad-like box was put on the front page of a university newspaper, which contained a number of Turkish or Turkish-sounding words (3). The frequency with which the words were repeated varied. The investigators sent questionnaires to the university communities, asking for impressions of whether each of the words “means something ‘good’ or something ‘bad.’ The results were spectacular and insightful: the words that were presented more frequently were rated much more favourably than the words that had been shown only once or twice.
The finding has been confirmed in many experiments, using Chinese ideographs, faces, and randomly shaped polygons. The mere “exposure effect” does not depend on the conscious experience of familiarity. (Long-time married couples may disagree with the positive effects of prolonged exposure). So the “priming effect” makes a person notice a certain concepts/objects while its co-assailant the “exposure effect” takes care of the positive marketing. Getting back to our investment advisor who is primed “Gangnam Style”: she is more likely to notice financial news related to South Korea, be statistically more likely to have a positive outlook on everything South Korean. She may recommend to her clients an investment in South Korean corporations (Samsung, Hyundai, etc), in South Korean bonds or (if she’s feeling very optimistic) just invest some of her own money. Subconsciously basing one’s investment decisions on a YouTube video is not exactly a recipe for success.
The concept of “free will” cannot be brought down by a “horse dance” in a quirky YouTube video. Regrettably for most economists our choices are not easily predictable but can be strongly influenced by a great number of factors which play tricks on our inferential machinery. Watching “Gangnam Style” will not make you into a mindless South Korean-loving zombie. However, a constant bombardment with a certain concept from every screen and news outlet can add up on the scale of whole societies.
Take for example the uproar which followed Facebook’s stock crash landing. Much virtual ink was spilled over the debate why Facebook went from “must” to “bust”. I believe that initial investors stomached the nosebleedingly high P/E ratio because of Facebook’s omnipresence. With almost 1 billion monthly users Facebook was and is truly unavoidable: it became a verb, it became a staple of the Internet, and it became THE international pastime. Even overworked investors with no online presence must have had at least one family member or friend who was hooked on Facebook. The mere “exposure effect” was again at work and made Facebook stock irresistible regardless of price. I believe the “exposure effect” contributed to the positive “gut feeling” that often guides long term investment.
A Universe from Nothing
“Gangnam Style” is the pop-culture craze du jour and its descent into obscurity will be quick and sudden. It’s one thing to have a billion views on YouTube but a whole different game when you have 1 billion users. Its continuing impact may be large but it is mostly outside the visible spectrum. Nonetheless, the issues raised by “Gangnam Style” about the baneful influence of pop-culture are here to stay. Pop-culture is like gravity and every well-educated person knows that gravity sucks i.e. it attracts (attention). In addition gravity can warp the fabric of space-time – the same way pop-culture through the “priming effect” changes our perception of reality. Space is brewing with “virtual particles” that pop in and out of existence in incredibly short time span and can carry a large amount of energy. Likewise large and random disturbances in the pop-culture continuum like “Gangnam Style” rise and implode in quick succession but can carry large consequences on real world matters.
These self-indulgent metaphors are the result of this humble author being primed after reading a physics book for laymen (5). The metaphors ultimately serve a self-referential point – it is impossible to live in an information vacuum and avoid being influenced by various psychological effects and cognitive biases. However only in certain situations these factors can lead to undesirable consequences: e.g. when making large investments or taking out a mortgage; not when waxing lyrical in an online article. Learning about the effects that the pop-culture ecosphere exerts on us is only half the job. Knowing exactly when to be acutely aware of one’s inferential shortcomings is the more difficult task and it is in equal parts science and art. Or as South Koreans wisely say: “Opp, Opp, Oppa Gangnam Style”!
- Gangnam Style becomes YouTube's most-viewed video, BBC.co.uk, 25/11/2012 url: http://goo.gl/kWdwM
- Psy's 'Gangnam Style' Dethrones Bieber, WSJ.com , 26/11/2012 url: http://goo.gl/UD3Lu
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Gleick, J. (2011). The information: A history, a theory, a flood. Fourth Estate (GB).
- Krauss, L. M. (2012). A universe from nothing: why there is something rather than nothing. Free Press.