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Fads: Why We Embrace Them

Pop-culture fads come and go. Experts say fads have different shapes and sizes. Yet, they are quite similar in their life cycle. They catch on fast, then quickly fade away. And while some fads are harmless and fun to adopt, others can be costly and even dangerous when they come as the next hot novelty in management, education, science or medicine.

When Joel Best was a child in the late 1950's, every kid in his neighborhood had to have one of those hot new toys known as hula-hoops.

"The hula hoop was a popular toy in the United States," he says. "They sold millions of the things. They arrived on the scene and disappeared in a period of 4 or 5 months. It's sort of the prototypical fad. It involves children, it's inexpensive and it doesn't last very long."

As a sociologist, Joel Best has always been interested in studying the fad phenomenon. The author of Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads says even experts can't predict what trend or product is significant and what's just a craze.

"You can look at history and see all sorts of examples where people guessed really wrong," he says. "They can say that something is just a fad, and it turns out to be a permanent change. In the 1950s, people said Rock and Roll music will never last. Or the wristwatch, people said the wristwatch is just a fad and of course it turned to be very, very, popular and to have lasted for a long time."

On the other hand Best says, "The 8-track tape recorder or CB radio, things like that, that people at the time thought were going to be important changes, and it turned out that they didn't last very long at all."

It's not hard to see how some fads get started, according to Columbia Business Professor Eric Abrahamson. Imitating celebrities is a major reason behind their quick spread. "So a star might wear something, then the people who really follow stars might wear it," he says. "It might go down to people who look at the people who really follow stars. Another reason is just that people have a tremendous appetite for modernity and novelty. They are always looking for the next cool nice special thing."

Abrahamson says you can see fads almost everywhere. "There has been recently, what I'd say is really faddish language among kids. One kid starts using a word, then it starts spreading and a lot of people use the word," he says. "You have fads in medicine, sometimes. For instance, everybody starts diagnosing a particular disease, or using a particular medicine. It spreads from doctor to doctor. There are the financial fads, for instance, everybody starts to buy a certain kind of stock."

Some highly-touted educational programs and policies have turned out to be just fads without lasting value. Abrahamson says the same is true for some business and management innovations. "For instance, Quality Control Circles or TQM - Total Quality Management, that largely come from the auto industry. When it becomes a fad, it starts spreading across all kinds [of businesses], so military adopts it, and even churches start adopting Total Quality Management."

But Abrahamson says, "Something that worked in the car industry may not very well work in churches. So it gets over-adopted. Sometimes, it's purposeful. A CEO might just need new marching song, new idea to get the firm going. So sometimes, very deliberately, they'll pick something even though they know it's a fad, just to get people to focus and to get change in the organization. It can be good but it's like a dose of caffeine: it wears off and you have to jump to another one. So, it's not clear that it's a great way to manage organizations."

According to sociologist Joel Best, these institutional fads go through the same three stages that pop-culture fads do, as they rise and fall. "I call them emerging, surging and purging. In the emerging stage, somebody has an idea," he says. "They promote, package it, and it begins to take off. A few people begin to adopt it. Then, the surging stage is when lots of people begin to climb up on the bandwagon. There is often a great deal of excitement at this stage. People don't want to be left behind. They want to be part of this important new thing. Then, it peaks at the some point, and the purging begins. That's when people begin to abandon the fad. They decide this really wasn't worth doing."

People usually start to abandon institutional fads when they start costing money rather than serving as an economic stimulus. But Business Professor Eric Abrahamson says they may have already done damage. "Downsizing American corporations, for instance, follows a faddish dynamic," he says. "It affects millions of people, sometimes very severely. None of the research afterwards suggested that it helped firms. So lots and lots of firms started these mass firings because other firms were doing mass firings."

Experts say it's important to acknowledge that institutional fads occur, so new programs or management schemes will be approached with caution. They say executives should examine such ideas carefully, and get evidence that they work before jumping on the bandwagon simply because everyone else is doing it.