Did Einstein Really Say that? Testing Content Versus Context in the Cultural Selection of Quotations

in Journal of Cognition and Culture
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Abstract

We experimentally investigated the influence of context-based biases, such as prestige and popularity, on the preferences for quotations. Participants were presented with random quotes associated to famous or unknown authors (experiment one), or with random quotes presented as popular, i.e. chosen by many previous participants, or unpopular (experiment two). To exclude effects related to the content of the quotations, all participants were subsequently presented with the same quotations, again associated to famous and unknown authors (experiment three), or presented as popular or unpopular (experiment four). Overall, our results showed that context-based biases had no (in case of prestige and conformity), or limited (in case of popularity), effect in determining participants’ choices. Quotations preferred for their content were preferred in general, despite the contextual cues to which they were associated. We conclude discussing how our results fit with the well-known phenomenon of the spread and success (especially digital) of misattributed quotations, and we draw some more general implications for cultural evolution research.

Did Einstein Really Say that? Testing Content Versus Context in the Cultural Selection of Quotations

in Journal of Cognition and Culture

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References

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Figures

  • View in gallery
    Comparison of quotes’ proportion of wins across the three topic groups in experiment one (Famous versus Unknown authors). Boxplots show medians and interquartile ranges, with whiskers extending to 1.5*IQR.
  • View in gallery
    Fame and content versus quotes’ success. Left panel: Linear regression of the proportion of times a quote was associated with a famous author in experiment one versus the proportion of wins in experiment one. The shaded area shows the 95% confidence interval. Right panel: Linear regression of the proportion of wins in experiment “Content only Evaluation” versus the proportion of wins in experiment one. The shaded area shows the 95% confidence interval.
  • View in gallery
    Average proportion of wins across the three topic groups in experiment two (Popular versus unpopular quotes) versus the frequency they were presented to subjects. Bars represented standard deviations of the data. The shades areas of the plots show where data points would have been expected, if participants had shown a conformist tendency.
  • View in gallery
    Comparison of quotes’ proportion of wins across the three topic groups in experiment two (Popular versus unpopular quotes). Boxplots show medians and interquartile ranges, with whiskers extending to 1.5*IQR.
  • View in gallery
    Popularity and content versus quotes’ success. Left panel: Linear regression of the proportion of times a quote was presented as “popular” in experiment two versus the proportion of wins in experiment two. The shaded area shows the 95% confidence interval. Right panel: Linear regression of the proportion of wins in the “Content only evaluation” test versus the proportion of wins in experiment two. The shaded area shows the 95% confidence interval.
  • View in gallery
    Comparison of quotes’ success across the six topics in experiment three and four. Upper panel: Percentage of success calculated as CLES (“common language effect size” McGraw & Wong, 1992; i.e. how many times, given all possible pairings, the quote in one condition was evaluated higher than the same quote in the other condition) across topics in experiment three (Single quotes and fame). Notice the sum for each topic is not 100, as a proportion of pairings resulted in ties. Lower panel: Percentage of success calculated as CLES across topics in experiment four (Single quotes and popularity).

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