People who feel like they don’t click with mainstream culture will often signal their non-conformity with different clothes, facial hair, accessories, tattoos etc. However, in doing so, many fall into the “hipster effect” — the tendency of non-conformists to converge in their behavior and appearance, thereby ending up looking the same. Basically, the non-conformists have become conformists in their own bubble.
A new study investigated these patterns of behaviors revealing that hipsters undergo a phase transmission whereby, given enough time and a large enough group of people, members become synchronized with each other in their opposition of the mainstream.
We agree to oppose
The new study was authored by Jonathan Touboul, a mathematician at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, whose work focuses on how social information spreads through society and influences its behavior. Touboul designed a model where two types of agents — mainstreams and anti-conformists — interact in the presence of delays in the transmission of information (social cues). This delay is important because people do not react instantly to new social information, whether it is a new pair of sneakers, man buns, or an Instagram filter.
Touboul’s model generated some interesting behaviors. Initially, the population of non-conformists acts randomly only to undergo a phase transition as they become exposed to social information. In time, the population of hipsters transitions into a synchronized state, and this was true for a variety of parameters.
Intriguingly, when the hipster-conformist populations are split 50-50, both populations tend to switch randomly between different trends. Touboul isn’t sure why this happens and would like to investigate this pattern in a new study. But perhaps this erratic behavior isn’t surprising seeing how it’s not clear in this situation which population follows the mainstream.
One might argue that Touboul’s model is overly simplified, offering binary choices in various scenarios. For instance, if most men have shaved their beard, then non-conformists will want to do the opposite by growing a beard. If this trend ends up reaching the majority of the population, the model predicts a new synchronization effect whereby hipsters will start shaving. However, the researcher found that the synchronization effect appeared consistently even when the model offered more than two choices.
“We show that when hipsters are too slow in detecting the trends, they will consistently make the same choice, and realizing this too late, they will switch, all together to another state where they remain alike. Similar synchronizations arise when the impact of mainstreams on hipsters choices (and reciprocally) dominate the impact of other hipsters choices, and we show that these may emerge only when the randomness in the hipsters decisions is sufficiently large,” Touboul wrote in his study.
While hipsters are often the object of ridicule, the study’s ironic conclusions might actually have practical utility. The same model could be applied to wider human behaviors, such financial market speculators who bet against the majority to make a profit, or for understanding the synchronization of nerve cells.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this study is that virtually all humans are conformists — one way or the other. We’re all exposed to both information cues that relay social messages and normative messages that call for compliance. Not all of us might be part of a broader religious or socio-economic group, but almost everyone is part of some in-group dynamic where our behavior, appearance, and convictions become synchronized. At the end of the day, humans are social creatures and conformity may be what makes us human — sane humans, at the very least.