In the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep plays Miranda Priestly, the workaholic editor of a fashion magazine called Runway, and Anne Hathaway plays her deliberately unfashionable assistant, Andy. Miranda senses Andy’s disdain for her world of designer skirts and belts and shoes, and at one point she icily confronts her assistant for her arrogance: “You see that droopy sweater you’re wearing?” she asks. “That blue was on a dress Cameron Diaz wore on the cover of Runway—shredded chiffon by James Holt. The same blue quickly appeared in eight other designers’ collections and eventually made its way to the secondary designers, the department store labels, and then to some lovely Gap Outlet, where you no doubt found it. That color is worth millions of dollars and many jobs.”

Miranda is an intuitive social psychologist. The fact is whether you favor droopy sweaters or Manolo Blahnik shoes, few people are original thinkers when it comes to what they wear. There are a few true innovators, of course, but unless you spin and dye the fabric and design your own wardrobe, you are cribbing from someone else’s mind. And what is true of sweaters is also true of less trivial ideas, which move through the ether in unpredictable ways. If you think that you coined a clever phrase or “discovered” a new talent, you almost certainly did not.

Rogue Explorer
That is because we do not really operate as free agents in the world. We are all entangled in complex patterns of collective behavior, many spontaneously organized and most entirely outside our understanding or awareness. Psychologists are very interested in these circles of ideas, how they grow and how people navigate them. Is there an ideal social arrangement for creating and sharing ideas, for mixing innovation and imitation? Are there perils in “borrowing” from others’ minds or in being too much of a rogue explorer?

The Collective Mind
A team of psychologists at Indiana University has been exploring these questions in the laboratory, and it is gaining some insights into the collective mind. Robert L. Goldstone and his colleagues created a virtual environment, an Internet-based “world” in which groups of people—from 20 to about 200—simultaneously “forage” for ideas. The researchers use the word “forage” to make the point that ideas are really just abstract resources, food for the brain. As we solve life’s various problems, we observe others’ ideas in action, invent a few of our own, trade off ours against theirs—and succeed or fail. The psychologists have been studying these virtual successes and failures to see what lessons they can draw.

Foraging for Ideas
Here is an example of how the experiment works. Participants, interconnected via the Internet, are asked to guess numbers from 0 to 100, and they receive feedback in the form of points, depending on whether their guesses are closer or farther from the target. Think of this task as your first day on the job in a big corporation where you know none of the cultural rules; all you can do is guess and see if you guessed right. But although you are guessing and getting feedback, you are also watching all your colleagues to see what choices they make and how well they do. If they do better than you, maybe imitation makes more sense than guessing? Or maybe you will try another guess?

And so forth. Trial and error, borrowing, compromise—until you figure it out. Meanwhile all the other participants are doing the same thing, including watching you. The scientists ran this experiment several different ways, each approximating a different kind of real-life social group. For example, in “local” networks participants were connected to only a few immediate neighbors, whereas in global networks everyone was connected to everyone else in a rich web. In “small world” networks, participants were connected locally but also had a few long-distance connections so they might pick up an idea or two from, say, a distant relative.

Small vs. Global
The findings, reported in the February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, were intriguing. When the problems were easy, the global networks did best. This result makes sense because such richly connected groups can spread information rapidly, and speed is basically all that is needed to disseminate a simple notion efficiently. But as the problems became trickier, the small-world networks tended to perform better. In other words, the truism that more information is always better proved untrue when life got a little messy. And as the problems became even more complex, the small local networks proved most clever.

None of us can navigate this complicated world alone. It is too arduous and time-consuming, like designing all your own clothes instead of trusting the Gap. But there is also a hazard in connectivity. If everyone ends up knowing exactly the same thing, you have a world of like-minded people, and this homogeneous group ends up acting like a single explorer rather than a federation of ideas. People pile on the well-known bandwagon, even if it is a really bad idea. It happens in politics, in musical taste and, yes, in the world of fashion. How else can you explain the popularity of Crocs?