Drift as a mechanism for cultural change: an example from baby names

Matthew W. Hahn, R. Alexander Bentley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

158 Citations (Scopus)


In the social sciences, there is currently no consensus on the mechanism by which cultural elements come and go in human society. For elements that are value-neutral, an appropriate null model may be one of random copying between individuals in the population. We show that the frequency distributions of baby names used in the United States in each decade of the twentieth century, for both males and females, obey a power law that is maintained over 100 years even though the population is growing, names are being introduced and lost every decade and large changes in the frequencies of specific names are common. We show that these distributions are satisfactorily explained by a simple process in which individuals randomly copy names from each other, a process that is analogous to the infinite-allele model of population genetics with random genetic drift. By its simplicity, this model provides a powerful null hypothesis for cultural change. It further explains why a few elements inevitably become highly popular, even if they have no intrinsic superiority over alternatives. Random copying could potentially explain power law distributions in other cultural realms, including the links on the World Wide Web.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S120-S123
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue numberSuppl 1
Publication statusPublished - 2003


  • cultural evolution
  • cultural transmission
  • random genetic drift


Dive into the research topics of 'Drift as a mechanism for cultural change: an example from baby names'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this