I was asked by Naomi Pike, journalist at Stylist Magazine, recently about the psychological underpinning of ‘viral objects’?
One recent example of an object that has gone viral is the Uniqlo shoulder bag. It costs US$20 and according to Lyst, it is the hottest fashion item of 2023 so far. It argues that its success is in response to the affordable ‘quiet luxury’ trend.
“Lyst has named this US$20 Uniqlo shoulder bag as the year’s hottest fashion item so far, after the trendy accessory went viral and garnered over 87 million views on TikTok.”
In a recent interview with BBCCulture about #quietluxury, I described it as “If you know, you know,”.
Human behaviour is complex
Human behaviour is complex, and it can rarely be explained or understood in a single way. But most of us want to know why we do what we do, and this is why psychology, the scientific study of human behaviour, is so fascinating when applied in the context of fashion, or any other context.
How can a psychologist explain why certain objects ‘go viral’?
The ease and speed of sharing content through social media platforms, email, messaging apps, and other online channels, and online influencers have significantly boosted the viral spread of items. This activity generates excitement which renders the item more memorable and more likely to be shared. Sharing creates a sense of connection and increased engagement among consumers which further adds to viral transmission. In addition, viral items can provide a sense of ‘social currency,’ as they become part of the zeitgeist. Therefore, a consumer who acquires this currency can communicate their awareness of what’s trending.
Fashion allows us to fit in and also stand out, and being able to display an object that has gone viral means we can both belong to the cognnescenti and distinguish ourselves from those who don’t. Our FOMO, fear of missing out, drives us to have the object.
From viral to cult status
There is a difference between a viral object and a cult object, so what makes a viral item achieve cult status?
Cult status typically arises around products, movies, books, music, people, or other cultural artefacts that have a relatively small but highly engaged and loyal fanbase. Cult status often arises from the strong emotional connection aroused by the perceived authenticity and individuality of the object. This leads fans to become advocates, and advocacy generates interest and intrigue, attracting even more people to explore and engage.
Typically, a cult object’s fanbase is a niche following built around shared interests and values. However, fanbases on social media can number millions or even billions of members and reach millions more. As a result, cult items on social media can not only capture the zeitgeist, but also contribute to creating it by aligning with prevailing trends, values, or aspirations that resonate with a broad audience.
Seeing others use, endorse, or talk about a particular item makes it more attractive as it generates what is known in psychology as ‘social proof’. Social proof is a psychological and social phenomenon in which people copy the actions of others in choosing how to behave in a given situation as defined by Robert Cialdini in his 1984 book Influence: Science and Practice and desccribed in the chapter on Fashion Consumption in my book The Psychology of Fashion.
When a critical mass shows interest, purchases, or engages with a specific item, its popularity gains momentum. In doing so, its access maybe more prized as it becomes less accessible. As a result, it becomes more likely to be recognized as a cult item. The short-lived nature of viral objects simply exacerbates the sense imminent scarcity and urgency to acquire the object which further increases its perceived status, popularity and desirablity.
The relationship to consumer behaviour
The increasingly frequent and transient nature of cult or viral items highlights the fast-paced nature of contemporary consumer culture, and reflects the impact of digital media, influencer endorsement and social networks on our behaviour.
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