God Plays Dice

Einstein didn’t believe that the physical world, at the smallest of levels, could be dictated by randomness. He and his friend Neils Bohr had animated arguments over the mysteries of quantum mechanics. As it stands today, it appears that Einstein was wrong and that God does indeed play dice. And this may be just as true for art as it is for subatomic particles.

The great writer Paul Auster once said, “The world is governed by chance. Randomness stalks us every day of our lives.” As a wildly successful writer, perhaps Paul could intuit what researches have recently confirmed: There is an element of chance in what works of art succeed and what works go unnoticed.

I highly, strongly, stomping-my-feet recommend that you listen to this short piece from NPR before reading along any further. You should also read the show notes here. Don’t worry, it won’t take long and it’ll totally be worth it.

For those who didn’t read or listen, a quick rundown of the research: A Princeton professor, baffled by why the Mona Lisa is the most popular (or famous) work of art in the world, set out to create several identical worlds populated with the same set of little-known songs to see if the same music would be favorably rated. For a control, he had one group of students rate the music without those ratings being visible to others. The rest of the groups could see how other people rated songs. What he found was that minor differences in popularity were accentuated in the groups where cross-talk was possible. Seeing what others liked increased the chance that you would like it (except for the occasional hipster, of course). The songs that rose to the top did not correlate across his identical worlds. And it’s worth mentioning that his sample size of listeners was huge: 30,000 listeners across the 9 worlds, so variance in taste can’t explain the results.

This research might disturb some while bringing comfort to others. For me, it helps explain the wild popularity of one of my books, which seems disproportionate to its worth. It also explains why many fantastic works can suffer in obscurity. It also reinforces the enormous power of word-of-mouth. In my line of work, reader recommendations are everything. This would also indicate that online reader reviews are more important than reviews from lone critics in more traditional outlets.

I’ve noticed this with my iTunes shopping habits. While scrolling through albums, my eyes (and mouse) are drawn to the songs with the longest popularity bars. I’m more likely to listen to these, and therefore to buy them, and therefore to recommend the songs to others. Small variations beget large differences in outcome. The butterfly doesn’t just flap her wings, she judges art. Or to twist another phrase: I might not know art, but I know what you like.

What do we do with this knowledge? There are some things we already do to counter this effect. We temper expectations when we see things very highly rated. I watched Disney’s Frozen expecting massive disappointment, because all I’d heard was how awesome the film is (and it was). But is it good to go into a work as a critic, armored against amusement? Possibly not. I’m reading a novel right now with a massive reputation and a huge endorsement from my mother, and all I can do is see the flaws. I’d rather not have heard a thing about the work. Previews ruin films for me. And when my friend Chris recommends anything (a comic, video game, film), he wants to go into all the things I’ll like about it. I have to beg him to stop. His recommendation is enough. Don’t prime me; just let me experience it.

This may be impossible to do when it comes to discovering new works of art. We rely on one another to help sort through the massive options in all forms of media. But maybe we should limit how much information we take in before we give a work a try. And perhaps we should pepper our samplings with some number of unknown works to give other artists a random chance. Free book samples allow us to do both of these things without a penny spent. And it can take less time (and be more enjoyable) to read a sample chapter than to sort through a dozen reviews before making up our mind. If the work captures your attention, read to the end of the sample and then give it a purchase.

For artists, the Princeton research can be a balm or a torment. That undiscovered work may never be discovered. God’s dice simply came up snake-eyes. If that makes us uncomfortable, Einstein would say that we’re in good company, that this is not how the world should work. Bohr would say that God cares not if we approve of how He made the world. I would say that undiscovered works should be given plenty of time to have their chance. New cohorts of readers are coming into being all the time, just as with the 9 worlds Princeton researchers concocted. Or go the nuclear option: Unpublish those unloved books and put them back up with a new cover and title, and give your piece a chance.

53 responses to “God Plays Dice”

  1. I think the way we judge art (of writing) is changing, just because the access is changing. “Going viral” wasn’t even a thing a few years ago. And while instant-mega-success is possible now with word-of-mouth at the speed-of-electrons, so is boutique success, where you have your small bevy of fans who totally get you. And that’s all you need. I think overall it enhances appreciation of artistry at all levels. And this is a good thing for humanity.

    1. This. An insightful comment from a reader who gets it means the world to me. Also, when a reader says they cried at a certain point. That’s the best feeling a writer can hope for.

  2. Fascinating research and a great snippet of sound (will that reaction make others more likely to praise it?)

    I’m with you on not knowing about a book or movie before experiencing it for myself. Mostly because I love the reveals without expectation.

    As an indie writer, my hope is to produce enough good quality material that when luck finds me, my work will satisfy and delight those who got there by popular consensus.

  3. kathy czarnecki Avatar
    kathy czarnecki

    Very interesting information. I have a love/hate relationship with reviews. I usually do read them and decide if I will see a movie or buy a book. What is really odd is that I had never heard of Wool, I never read a review or saw it on line. I was just glancing at books at Target one day and the cover captured my attention. I turned it over and read the blurb, saw that Ernie Cline liked it (that swayed me) and I bought it. I had not read a Sci Fi book in years. Since Wool, I have read many. What can I say, I am really glad I was at Target that day looking at books. Thanks dice!

  4. “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

  5. I recently read an article about youtube in which the developers were proposing that the activity of sharing videos was more important than actually watching them. People recommend youtube videos because the want to share the experience of watching them with friends (and even strangers). I suspect the same is true of books, movies, music, etc. For example, I’ve always thought the Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of the driest pieces I’ve ever read. But I love geeking out with my friends and making references to events in the stories. (I must admit that I read Wool because of the buzz on Amazon! :))

    Also, I can’t help but remember that luck is the intersection of hard work and opportunity. None of the 48 songs had a chance at being number one unless they were actually written first. And I’m guessing that all 48 songs were at least moderately good. I think an interesting twist on the experiment would be to throw a couple of truly horrible songs into the mix and see if they rise to the top in any of the alternate universes. So yes, it takes luck to have a book be a top seller on Amazon, but it also takes talent, ability and hard work.

  6. There is another phenomenon that puzzles me: artists who lworked in poverty and sometimes with derision in their lifetimes, whose work is now adored and worth millions.

  7. Several thoughts here, so please bear with me :-)

    I’ve seen this phenomenon myself in reviews. Reviews for one of my books tend to be about half a star lower on GoodReads than Amazon and I attribute it to the fact that the first few GoodReads reviews were 4 stars rather than the 5s I saw on Amazon. Many people wish to be part of a group or herd. Few wish to stand out. So, if people see most of the reviews for a work sitting at 4 stars, they’ll tend to put 4 as well. I don’t have any scientific basis for these assumptions. They come from simple observations, but I do believe they hold true.

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Hugh, regarding reviews and recommendations before seeing a movie or reading a book for myself. It taints the experience. More often than not, if I have high expectations going in, I’ll be disappointed. If I have low ones, I’m usually pleasantly surprised.

    One more thought as I listened to the NPR piece and read your post: Your Voice Matters. I did a series of blog posts with this title over the last couple of years, highlighting youth who were making a difference in their communities or even globally. My goal was to show young people. who many times feel no one listens to them, that they can affect positive change in the world. Even something as simple as smiling at someone and saying, “Hi!” can have a positive effect on their day. I urge everyone to think about this as you go through each day. If a positive, seemingly random, event occurs to you, how does the rest of your day progress? I’m betting you have a better outlook on things. When the opposite happens — maybe someone cuts you off in traffic, or bumps into you as you leave the cafe and spills your coffee — how does that affect the rest of your day?

    Take the chance each day to do something positive for a stranger. Smile. Give them your seat on the subway. Hold open a door. You never know how that small act might butterfly through the rest of their day.

  8. Interesting experiment. One way to counteract some of the randomness would be to roll the die more often–put out more books, songs, paintings, etc. That seems to be a cornerstone of the indie author strategy.

  9. Randomness plays a factor in all things (you can only write because you haven’t yet been killed and weren’t born with a mental defect, which is lucky), but I’ve experienced enough too-strange-to-be-coincidences to side with Forrest Gump: “Jenny, I don’t know if Momma was right or if, if it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.”

    Wool may have got visibility through luck, but it’s better than most of the science fiction I’ve read. I read the rest of your stuff because of how good that book was and I’ve recommended it to people because it was good. Somewhere out there may be the undiscovered middle grade book that’s better than Harry Potter, but I haven’t found it and I certainly haven’t written it.

  10. Thanks for sharing, Hugh! I too find research like this fascinating, and like Ben above, my big takeaway was to roll more dice. And the study author’s take goes back to your Huggers post: seed nice into that random world, and hope for the best. My first book should be up sometime this week, so time to be nice!

    And to be honest, I tried Wool partially because you’re so nice in all your online interactions, plus the buzz.

  11. I agree with Ben Mathew, above. If you write and publish more books, you have more chances to be discovered.

    You can’t do anything about the randomness of luck. All you can do is make sure luck has plenty of chances to find you.

  12. That’s why I keep doing all these free giveaways of Rise Headless and Ride. My mom says– but you’re not making any money! And she’s right. But I tell her– the book’s too good to charge for it today.

    You’ve got to maximize your opportunities for luck and chaos. Quiver butterflies and shake trees. Make the rain fall in Indonesia.

    I’m not religious, but there’s a biblical passage I think of: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.”

  13. Many years ago, I religiously read a couple of film magazines, but I started to enjoy films less and less. I figured out it was because I went in knowing too much already.

    The films I typically enjoy the most are the ones I know nothing about.

  14. Jason Lockwood Avatar

    Several weeks ago, a good friend came over for a movie night with a DVD that she had really liked, but said very little about it. I’d heard the title and knew that it was a recent movie and had a few well known actors in it. I read no reviews or anything about it. I decided I wanted to experience the movie without any fetters.

    It was a wonderful movie with an interesting plot device and really affecting performances. After watching it, I looked up reviews, out of pure curiosity. Many of the reviews were middling to negative and some made me wonder if the reviewer had watched the same movie as I.

    I’m of the opinion that one should experience the book, movie, painting, whatever without reference to what other people say about it. After all, it is one’s own judgement that is most important, not what some critic says one ‘ought’ to think about it.

    As an aside, I never criticise people’s chosen values in art. Instead of saying nasty things like ‘That’s a terrible movie! How can such trash be a favourite of yours?!’ I ask questions. I want to know what the person values in the movie and why. By engaging in that method, I bring people closer to me, rather than dismissively casting them aside.

  15. Kenneth Stevens Avatar

    Jerry Pournelle has written of the time an earthquake hit his Southern California home when he was in his study. After things had settled down, he saw that of his many thousands of volumes, only one title (which he not yet read) had fallen to the floor. He glanced idly at the cover, and then re-shelved it, forgetting the matter until he got a call from that same book’s author a couple of days later. He explained to that the magazine he edited needed a feature article on the physics of earthquakes, and that Pournelle had been recommended for the assignment by a well-known scientist. The piece that he ended up handing in impressed the editor enough that he offered him a monthly column. This provided enough of a financial cushion so that Pournelle, the father of four children, was able to quit his day job and to begin writing full-time.

    Are the dice loaded? Pournelle sats that they are, and insists that he had, in his words, a “religious experience.”

  16. It shouldn’t take a study like this to make us treat people better. I’m always amazed reading about how famous people always “knew” they’d be famous — as though there weren’t a crapload of disappointed people who also knew they’d be famous but weren’t. We should not be judging people based on how commercially or conventionally successful they are. We should not be judging books, or movies, or plays, or songs based on what other people think of them.

  17. Disney’s Frozen was such a hot mess. There were so many problems with the script, I don’t know where to begin. The music was mediocre. Sure, it looked pretty but that’s about it. My concern is that people have become so accustomed to mediocre storytelling that they’re starting to not know what is good and what is not good.

  18. “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” – Malachi Constant

  19. An extremely interesting post that speaks to one of the great strengths of indie publishing — the TIME to be discovered. An author’s work isn’t forever relegated to obscurity, just because it fails to attract a readership (or a sufficiently large readership) in a few months. Chance apparently plays a huge role, but you have to be playing the game. When I was a youngster, I was friends with an older gentleman who fished most days at a local fishing pier – usually sunrise to sunset. He caught a lot of fish (which he always gave to others, as he didn’t eat fish). I remember once, someone asking him about the ‘secret’ to his great success. He just smiled and said, “Mostly, I just keep my hook in the water.”

  20. First of all I really like your article (and your writing style).

    Okay, I took my kid and wife to see “Frozen” but we don’t watch television and rarely go out to movies. So we had 0 idea what we were getting into (this was maybe a month ago now?) We all HATED the movie and were utterly TORMENTED by the song! Wife and I were shocked, shocked I tell you, that the song from “Frozen” was nominated at the Oscars and I don’t even want to know if they won it. Worst. Movie. Ever. Want a $$ refund.

    All 3 of us hated it. So that DOES mean something to your article on success. I find it amusing that everyone else loved it so much.

    As for your first ebook WOOL (the short version) which I read on a whim and a lark I really enjoyed. I thought it was creative and interesting. Then you built the worlds up and continued to do pretty good jobs with the succession of stories though in some places I was a little confused or uninterested until the end…nonetheless I believe you deserve the success you have as well as the loyal fans.

  21. As usual, a great thoughtful post, Hugh.

    In discussions with my very talented son about the role of chance, hard work and talent in an artist’s success, I have tried to reinforce the fact that if he doesn’t get his work out there, he has no chance of succeeding, regardless of his talent. Talent alone is never enough to succeed. Sometimes, he feels defeated and says he is not lucky so what chance does he have to succeed? I tell him you can improve your chances and luck by being there when lady chance comes along. You have to put yourself out there, again and again and trust that she will eventually show up. If you give up, you will certainly miss her.

    When it comes to books, I see books with good covers, interesting blurbs and good first chapters, but which never become successes, while books with similar covers, blurbs and first chapters are wildly successful. It’s difficult if not impossible to explain that chance blend of circumstances that allowed one work to rise to the top, while the other languishes in the darkness. Writers should approach the whole process with the conviction of “Why not me? Why not my books?” and just keep at it until they succeed. If they give up, they most certainly won’t.

  22. Hugh,

    I think Wool is such a great success because you’ve tapped into universal fears that we are destroying our own world. The success is NOT disproportionate. The writing is taut and engaging, and the theme is terrifying and too close to reality to ignore. That’s the key. Consider the triple melt-throughs at Fukushima, with the location of the melted fuel unknown after three years, and no solutions in sight. It’s a horror show, and Wool is a preview of our future if we do not reform our current structure.

  23. […] God Plays Dice | Hugh Howey […]

  24. […] post on how to make it big as a writer – or most other things. In another post, he links to a NPR article on what makes great ‘art’. The answer might depress you – luck. Not great writing […]

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