The Zipf Effect

Imagine everything that you do is in alignment with one rule. Crazy, right? There’s no way that you, an unpredictable human being could be so… predictable? Actually, there is and it’s called the Zipf Effect. The Zipf Effect is named after George Kingsley Zipf, the person who made the effect well known. It’s basically the effect that if the most thing happens, then the second most thing happens half of the first, the third most thing happens one-third of the first, the fourth most thing happens one-fourth of the first, (etc.). This might not seem too common, but really it’s very popular. Here’s an example:Zipf Effect on WWII Casualties.jpg
This is a graph of the WWII casualties based on each country in the war. Here’s another example about the word frequency in “Moby Dick,” an old novel.Zipf Effect on English Words.jpg
The similarity between the two can be seen, but the WWII example is just turned 90 degrees to the right. By the way, the most frequent word is, “the”. The Zipf effect present in every language, African, Asian, European, and everywhere else! Zipf Effect on Facebook Likes.jpg
Here’s one with an example of Zipf, it shows how closely we are to Zipf’s effect. One theory behind the Zipf effect on languages is that, the more we use the word, the more we want to use it. In the case of the English language (get it?), we use or hear one word a whole bunch and then that word becomes our default whenever we don’t know what to say. So, that’s the Zipf effect, in a nutshell.

Up to this point(excluding the title) I have used the word thirty-six times. Not the most, but quite a lot. Actually, there’s a mini science experiment you can use to demonstrate the Zipf Effect (I got it from VSauce’s video).

Paperclip Zipf Lab
What you need:
– About a handful of paperclips (try to get ones that are similar)
Then, put them all in a pile and fish around for two. When you get them, link them together (even if they’re already linked), continue this process for a minute or two. When you’re done, line them up from the longest chain to the smallest chain. Amazingly, they will tend to look like the Zipf curve!

If you want to learn more about the Zipf effect, check out VSauce’s video The Zipf Mystery.
WWII Casualties graph: Fathers for Life
Moby Dick word frequency: Philippe Adjiman’s Blog
NBA Facebook like graph: Precision Leader



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s