Connections Versus Insight

Consider a fashion in music, clothes, tech, research topics, or most anything.  You could use this fashion at five possible times:

  1. Well before it is fashionable.
  2. When it is first fashionable.
  3. Before popularity peaks.
  4. After popularity peaks.
  5. Long after it is fashionable.

These five usage times can signal five positive features:

  1. Insight into what will be in fashion.
  2. Power to make people follow a your fashion concept.
  3. Connections to people who learn of fashion early.
  4. Cooperativeness in trying to match others.
  5. Strong behavior habits.

Now people who value insight highly often assume that earlier usage of a fashion is always a more positive signal.  But most people see using something well before it is fashionable to be a bad sign – yes it shows your insight, but it also shows your lack of power and connections. 

This is even true in academia, where people claim to value insight highly; really, even academics value power and connections more than insight.  Don’t assume you will be rewarded for working on a research concept well before it is fashionable.

Added 24Jan:  To clarify, I mean that even if you do have genuine insight about what will be fashionable, but not power or connections, then on average, considering both your rewards when you work on a yet-to-be-fashionable topic and later when it becomes fashionable, you’d have been better rewarded if you worked on something else.

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  • sa

    This is a very interesting point and pretty much captures in a few paras what entire marketing tomes and their segmentation theories say.

    This is the stuff for which this blog rocks.

  • Robin, what is your view on how insights get to the powerful? Do ideas generally flow up a hierarchy, some ideas being filtered out at each level till they reach the top? The filtering process might be more protective of entrenched power than advancing the welfare of people in general (how many people would tell their boss about a great idea their underling had).

    On the other hand, if a lieutenant passes on an underlings good idea as his own and gets credit, he migth want to keep his underling on his staff for the benefits, and as the lieutenant is promoted, so too is his underling, perhaps, so their might be some positive movement in general, though it’s obviously off-putting one would pass off someone else’s ideas as his own.

  • A related point is the “Bertie Wooster” effect: people prefer to befriend people they perceive as easy to influence (especially if they have high status).

  • This is even true in academia, where people claim to value insight highly; really, even academics value power and connections more than insight.”

    I think I’d put it this way: By and large, academics (and people in general) really do take themselves to “value insight” (it’s not just a pose); but what counts to them as “insight” is heavily biased by the social pressures you laid out.

  • Matthew

    really, even academics value power and connections more than insight. . .

    You really get it.

  • Jef Allbright

    Thanks, I needed that!

  • Jess Riedel

    Examples? Specifically, I think you’d need to show examples of research where all of the following are true:

    (a) the topic in unfashionable at the time
    (b) the topic becomes fashionable
    (c) the researcher’s work on that topic is insightful/important
    (d) the researcher does not receive reward/credit for their work

    Part (c) is crucial. Simply working in a field, without contributing anything, is not insightful just because it later becomes trendy. You have to contribute something.

    My suspicion is that such examples would be hard to find, simply because previous important research will necessarily be cited by the explosion of work following the transition to trendiness. But, I am new to academia, so perhaps this is naive.

  • Doug S.
  • Wendy Collings

    Following fashion can involve positive aspects such as connections and cooperativeness; consider that it often also involves a measure of laziness – an unwillingness to think, analyse, appraise. “If I wear what’s fashionable, I must look attractive.” “If I use the same buzzwords my colleagues do, I’ll be speaking intelligently.” “If I follow the latest in music/politics/research/theories I will have the right tastes/ideas/attitudes.”

    The fashion zone is a comfortable one, where people feel secure in the choices they’ve made. Those who choose outside the zone can be seen as questioning the judgement of the fashion-followers, particularly of those who rely on the support of numbers to justify their choices.

    New ideas can, quite simply, make others feel awkward and insecure – often without realising why.

  • I am not completely sure of this. I have seen cases of people not being valued for groundbreaking work until after the work has become mainstream, i.e. reached point 5, but I have not seen such people shunned when their field of research has been established.

    It is true, that when the ideas are new, they tend to go unnoticed and their presenters tend to be marginalized for their “weird” interests. But once the show gets going, these people do get credit. Not necessarily enough credit, given the true value of their work, but credit nevertheless.

    A typical case goes like this: A young scientist, call him “A”, publishes a groundbreaking idea that goes largely unnoticed. A more established scientist, “B”, takes on the idea and publishes something related an the idea takes off. B usually gets all the invitations to speak in conferences, gets cited more often etc. But once the idea goes mainstream and further developments are being pursued (transition from stage 3 to 4), A:s original idea gets examined more closely and at least gets labelled as “the original” work in the canon.

    It is also sometimes, even most often, the case that A’s original idea was not presented very clearly or according to “standard notation” or something other, and that is why it doesn’t get the attention it “deserves”. There is a high probability of this because often original ideas are being put forward by young scientists, who have not been established in a particular field and who do not necessarily adhere to the notational standards in any particuar forum. This does not mean that their ideas are not good, only that it takes more effort from established researchers to find out what exactly it is they are saying.

  • outeast

    I’m a bit mystified by this. Is the idea that others should be able to recognize that you are doing something well before it is fashionable, and should thus recognize and reward your insightfulness? But how can you expect them to recognize you’re not simply off with the fairies?

    And even if you are doing something before it’s fashionable, that need not necessarily mean you have genuine insight – you might just be the proverbial stuck clock that ends up showing the right time (ie being in sync with the fashion) by chance. And even if your insight is the real deal, and you call it correctly well ahead of the crowd… it still doesn’t mean you’ll be right next time (look at Linus Pauling!) so you can’t expect faith in your insight.

    Really, if you’re ahead of the times then you can only expect to be recognized once the times have caught up, and even then all you’re entitled to is a ‘good call, old boy’ and a slap on the back (you know – a Nobel prize or something).

  • See added to post. Doug, nice link.