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NPR's Alix Spiegel is about to introduce us to a Princeton professor who created a series of parallel worlds. The goal: to tease out how much artistic success is about the actual quality of the work and how much is just dumb luck. Alix's story begins with the most famous painting in the world.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: In July of last year, a man named Sidney Sealine went to see the Mona Lisa in Paris. He went because he wanted to spend some time with the picture, to see for himself that special spark that makes the painting so famous. But it didn't work out so well.

SIDNEY SEALINE: We are in the room which houses the Mona Lisa. I cannot express to you how ridiculously over-the-top crowded this room is. The video cannot capture it.

SPIEGEL: In the video of his visit, people of every race and nationality are crowded around the wood railings that separate them from the Mona Lisa. They're holding cameras over their heads, snapping pictures like paparazzi at a movie opening, trying to get a picture of this picture, this surprisingly small rectangle on a wall behind an enormous slab of darkly tinted bulletproof glass.

SEALINE: It is the very essence of a total zoo.


SPIEGEL: The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world because people believe that there is something profoundly special about the painting, some quality so distinguishing, that it deserves to be as famous as it is. But is that true?

MATTHEW SALGANIK: It's very hard for us to think intuitively that there is this random element in success.

SPIEGEL: Several years ago, Princeton Professor Matthew Salganik started thinking about success, specifically how much of success should be attributed to the inherent qualities of the successful thing itself, and how much was just chance. For some essentially random reason, a group of people decided that the thing in question was really good, and their attention attracted more attention, until there was a herd of people who believed that it was really special, mostly because other people believed that it was. But the successful thing wasn't, in fact, that special. Now, people have been arguing about this for years, but it's a hard question to settle, because there's only ever one version of reality. So you can't really tell what's what.

SALGANIK: To see the role of chance, you need to see multiple realizations of the same process. But we only ever get to see one outcome. So, we see the world where Mona Lisa is a most - you know, one of the most famous paintings, and it's hard to imagine that something different could have happened.

SPIEGEL: But Salganik is good at computers, so he came up with a plan. He would create a series of identical worlds online filled with the same pieces of art, then get thousands of people to choose which they liked best. And if the same art rose to the top of every world, then he would know success was driven by the inherent qualities of that work. If not, he could say that success was essentially a crapshoot.

SALGANIK: We have the chance of really seeing this - as much as we possibly can - parallel versions of history. So, rather than trying to argue like that, we just said, let's just create these parallel worlds and see what happens.

SPIEGEL: Which brings me to the parallel worlds he created for his experiment. They sound like this.


SPIEGEL: This is one of 48 songs that Salganik offered to the visitors of the nine identical online worlds that he created. Each world had the exact same music, all unknown songs by emerging artists. He got 30,000 teenagers to participate in the study, and each teen was randomly assigned to one of the nine different worlds. And the deal was that after listening to the songs, they could download the ones that they liked the most for free.

SALGANIK: So, we had the exact same 48 songs competing against each other, we had the exact same initial conditions, everything starts with zero downloads, and we have indistinguishable groups of participants, because they were randomly placed into the world.

SPIEGEL: Now, remember, here is what he is trying to figure out about success.

SALGANIK: How much of success is caused by quality, and how much is caused by luck.

SPIEGEL: Success, in this case, being which songs became most popular in the different worlds. So, what did he find?

SALGANIK: Different songs become popular in these different histories.

SPIEGEL: And not in small ways, either.

SALGANIK: For example, we had this song "Lock Down" by the band 52 Metro. In one world, this song came in first. In another world, it came in 40th out of 48. And this was exactly the same song, competing against the same other songs. It's just in these different worlds, history evolved slightly different. There were differences in the beginnings and then the process of social influence and cumulative advantage sort of magnified those small, random initial differences.

SPIEGEL: Now, obviously, there are many different things that have an impact on success and failure - a laundry list of things. And after this work, which one person in the field described to me as a seminal paper, Salganik went on to do a similar study that suggests that quality does at least have a limited role. Essentially, it's hard to make something of very poor quality succeed, but after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn't is essentially a matter of chance. Chance is the thing. Which makes you think - and not just about the role that chance plays in what we consider good or even great art - but about success more generally in our lives.

SALGANIK: You know, obviously, now we're extrapolating beyond the experiment. But I think absolutely, there's a huge role of chance in who we meet, who we end up marrying, what jobs we end up getting, and small initial differences, even ones that are essentially random can lock in. Because once you get on this path of success, it's easier to stay on it.

SPIEGEL: Do you find that depressing?

SALGANIK: That's a good question. I think if you believe that there's a large role for chance in the outcomes that people have and the kinds of success that people have and also the kinds of failure that people have, it changes how you treat other people.

SPIEGEL: You think you'd treat them nicer?

SALGANIK: I'd like to think so.


NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa men have named you...

SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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