Skip to content

“The hype economy”

Palko writes:

I have no idea whether it is real or apocryphal, but there’s an often referred to study with primates where the they earned tokens that could be exchanged for food. According to the standard version, the subjects soon came to value those tokens more than the treats they could be exchanged for.

The hype economy works along similar lines. The ability to get people talking about something (preferably but not always necessarily in a positive way) is tremendously valuable by most traditional standards. For entertainers, it can bring in large audiences. For goods and services, it can drive sales and help maintain customer loyalty. For politicians, it can be votes. For public policy initiatives, it can generate and shore up support.

At some point though (and it’s a point we passed quite a while back) the ability to generate buzz becomes disconnected both from the attributes which are supposed to drive it and the objectives it is supposed to serve. It then takes on a life of its own. Hype becomes the primary if not sole metric by which anything is judged.

I agree with Palko that this is happening, and of course we see this in science too, where the goal is to publish a paper in a high-impact journal, or to get lots of citations, or lots of awards and reputation points. The idea would be that these tokens are signs of scientific progress and success. To the extent that’s happening, it’s not so unreasonable to aim for the tokens under the theory that, if you do what it takes to get the tokens, true success will come along the way. Just as, if your goal is to be a top athlete, it’s a reasonable strategy to aim for a championship. But this all becomes a problem if there are other ways to get the tokens than through true scientific progress.

One thing I’d like to add to Palko’s conception is that the ability to aim for buzz rather than sales (in the economics context) will only work if you are already comfortable, right? So an internet entrepreneur can go for clicks and buzz only if he or she is already putting food on the table in some other way. I’m not sure how this fits into the rest of the story.

P.S. Also this:

One of the classic recipes for disaster in a market bubble is focusing exclusively on a sharp increase in demand while ignoring an even greater increase in supply.

I guess everyone who’s putting money into this, is thinking they won’t be the last one to get out.


  1. Mithat says:

    I agree that you need to be already comfortable to make this work. This is why we have plenty of companies who do not generate profit but are valued highly — they are living on the buzz and investor money. But I am more interested in what happens in science: there are already plenty of ways you can get the tokens even if you have made no real scientific progress.

  2. Mark Palko says:

    Would you include popular TED talks as tokens?

    • Andrew says:


      The positive way to look at a Ted talk is that, if you think you have a good idea, then you want as many people as possible to hear about it. I don’t think of the Ted talk as being a signal of scientific success; it’s more of a way to promulgate ideas.

  3. oncodoc says:

    Is there a definition of “hype” that we all can use consistently to identify it? People spend a lot of money on things that don’t matter much to me such as wrist watches, stamp collections, and sports figure memorabilia. Based on your 11/19 article, I guess that the recent $90 million price on a Hockney painting would be deemed “hype” by you, Dr. Gelman. However, beyond water, basic carbohydrates, a little protein, and a few veggies isn’t everything in the grocery store “hype”? No one needs soda pop, well marbled steaks, or Count Chocula, but they are big in the market. We need to have a good way to distinguish things that are more than just bare necessities from things that are truly superfluous to identify “hype.”
    One thing that I think we can call hype in science is when someone achieves a good result from luck rather than through unique thinking. In my field I saw a great deal of prestige accrue to principal investigators who I thought were merely lucky. Several compounds would enter clinical trials. Each trial would be done with equal care, but for reasons that could not have been predicted, methyl supermycin was better than propyl supermycin. The PI for the methyl compound gets the prestigious position for presentations at the international meeting and subsequently Big Pharma seeks him out to do trials on their more promising drugs. The propyl compound investigator worked just as hard and as carefully but publishes in a mundane journal. In science we need to examine the process and not just the outcome.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I found the following definition online for “hype”: “extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion”
      This coincides with how I use the word.

      With this definition, I would not consider your example “when someone achieves a good result from luck rather than through unique thinking” as describing hype. If the result is indeed good, then it deserves to be acclaimed as such. You seem to be confusing “hype” with “researcher gets prestige”.

      However, if a result is not really very important, but gets a lot of attention and acclaim — that I would call “hype”.

      • Keith O’Rourke says:

        But how they came up with the important finding is not important as it was just luck and that (look I came up with this) is hype.

        From my experience in clinical research (at a time when EBM started to reign) that is what most of the hype was about. As my director used to put it “any idiot can randomise groups to A or B and then look to see whether or not there was a difference”.

        Part of what lead to the replication crisis – how the study was planned and implemented hardly mattered compared to whether the p-value was below .05 or not. Doing a really good study in a challenging to treat and study area became a career risk.

        • Michael Watts says:

          But we aren’t trying to build a system that employs diligent scientists. We’re trying to build a system that produces valuable results, regardless of how much effort or care went into getting those results. From that perspective, it’s quite correct to reward those who get valuable results without regard to how they got them.

  4. Michael Watts says:

    I agree that there is, in general, a sizeable problem with people targeting effects or indicators of desirable goals as if those things were the goals themselves. But I don’t think the analogy to money is valid.

    There’s a basic, obvious reason why monkeys would value money more than the same value worth of fruit. If 20 grapes are equal to 3 apples, and one token will buy either 20 grapes or 3 apples, then the token actually is more valuable than either fruit option, because by holding the token you preserve your option to choose the most suitable fruit at the time you need fruit.

Leave a Reply