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Flavor of the Month

Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads

Joel Best
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 222
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnswk
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  • Book Info
    Flavor of the Month
    Book Description:

    While fads such as hula hoops or streaking are usually dismissed as silly enthusiasms, trends in institutions such as education, business, medicine, science, and criminal justice are often taken seriously, even though their popularity and usefulness is sometimes short-lived. Institutional fads such as open classrooms, quality circles, and multiple personality disorder are constantly making the rounds, promising astonishing new developments-novel ways of teaching reading or arithmetic, better methods of managing businesses, or improved treatments for disease. Some of these trends prove to be lasting innovations, but others-after absorbing extraordinary amounts of time and money-are abandoned and forgotten, soon to be replaced by other new schemes. In this pithy, intriguing, and often humorous book, Joel Best-author of the acclaimedDamned Lies and Statistics-explores the range of institutional fads, analyzes the features of our culture that foster them, and identifies the major stages of the fad cycle-emerging, surging, and purging. Deconstructing the ways that this system plays into our notions of reinvention, progress, and perfectibility,Flavors of the Monthexamines the causes and consequences of fads and suggests ways of fad-proofing our institutions.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93235-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 The Illusion of Diffusion
    (pp. 1-22)

    In the summer of 1958, our parents bought hula hoops, one for my younger brother and one for me. We weren’t the first kids in our neighborhood to have them (I vaguely remember Dad having waited until the price dropped—hula hoops originally cost about $3, a lot of money in those days for some plastic tubing, a wooden plug, and two staples), but most of the kids I knew got one that summer.

    I don’t think we played all that much with our hula hoops. What I remember most were the photos that the newspapers and magazines ran that...

  5. 2 Why We Embrace Novelties: Conditions That Foster Institutional Fads
    (pp. 23-44)

    Next September, about 4 million youngsters will enter first grade in the United States. Their parents—and the rest of us—hope and expect that during the coming year, those first-graders will learn to read. In our society, the ability to read has become a fundamental, essential skill. A century ago, when people spoke of being illiterate, they meant someone who could not read or write more than his or her own name. Today, we worry aboutfunctional illiteracy—that is, the inability to read well enough to decipher a job application, an instruction manual, a tax form, or other...

  6. 3 The Fad Cycle: Emerging
    (pp. 45-79)

    Recent management fads offer a clear example of our culture’s fascination with perfection. They urge businesses to improvequality:that is, to cut costs through more perfect performance by making fewer errors in producing goods and serving customers. In the early 1980s, firms were supposed to organizequality circlesin which workers and managers could discuss ways to improve quality. As enthusiasm for quality circles faded,Total Quality Managementappeared on the scene; here the pursuit of quality was supposed to govern all the firm’s activities. Yet already by 1992, Newsweek was reporting that “TQM . . . has stumbled...

  7. 4 The Fad Cycle: Surging
    (pp. 80-105)

    Consider low-carb eating—our new millennium’s first big dietary enthusiasm. Its proponents promised that avoiding carbohydrates could lead to weight loss, as well as better sex and longer life—our culture’s lifestyle trifecta. Sure, we know better: our heads may tell us that we need to eat less and exercise more in order to lose weight. Still, our hearts can be swayed by claims that the real secret to happiness lies in following some special diet.

    Demonizing carbohydrates was not new:Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolutionfirst topped the best-seller lists in 1973. But the new century brought a revived wave...

  8. 5 The Fad Cycle: Purging
    (pp. 106-128)

    Around 1990, public attention became focused on the prospect that bone marrow transplants might cure women with advanced breast cancer. Physicians had tried the procedure a few times, and some of the results seemed promising. While research was still in its early stages, the media began publicizing the potential breakthrough, and patients started approaching doctors to request that they be given the treatment, which they saw as their only hope. However, bone marrow transplants involved several weeks of hospitalization, with total costs often exceeding $100,000, and some medical insurers refused to cover the costs of a treatment that had not...

  9. 6 Fad Dynamics
    (pp. 129-152)

    Our oldest son started school when we lived in California. My wife and I enrolled Eric in a public school, and we attended the orientation program for parents of new students. The principal spoke. Among other things, she talked about how reading would be taught. The state of California, she said, had conducted an exhaustive review of the research literature on how children learn to read, and it had concluded that the most effective teaching method was whole language instruction. (Whole languagewas the current term for what had earlier been calledword recognitionorsight reading;that is, teaching...

  10. 7 Becoming Fad-Proof
    (pp. 153-162)

    Every institutional fad has boosters promoting its adoption. They promise change, transformation, progress, solutions to nagging problems, perhaps something approaching perfection. Sure, some of these promoters may be cynical hucksters, scamming the gullible with claims they know to be bogus; but many are completely sincere, dedicated converts convinced that their innovation offers the best route to a better future.

    Of course, once the fad has run its course, those bright dreams become tarnished, the promises of great transformations lie in ruins, and the changes stand revealed as far less grand than once envisioned. What should we make of this wreckage?...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 163-178)
  12. References
    (pp. 179-198)
  13. Index
    (pp. 199-201)