Have you noticed how anti-conformist hipsters tend to look the same? Many “individualists” who reject mainstream society end up wearing the same type of clothes, have similar hairstyles, listen to the same music, and share the same political opinions. This is called the hipster effect, and a mathematical study may provide insight into why it happens.
Mathematician Jonathan Touboul at Brandeis University in Massachusetts studies how information flow in society influences human behavior. His focus has been on the simplified model society consisting of two types of people: conformists who always copy the majority, and anti-conformists who always do the opposite.
Almost no matter what their initial model state, hipsters undergo a phase transition in which they synchronize to each other. Touboul’s conclusion is that the hipster effect is an inevitable result of the interactions of a large group of people.
Despite the simplicity of his model, the individual simulations generate surprisingly complex behavior in the transition period, although the end states are often very similar. One surprising outcome is that when there is largely a similar number of anti-conformists and conformists in a society, the whole population tends to shift randomly between trends.
One should always be cautious in drawing conclusions from computer simulations, especially highly simplistic ones. More research is needed, but Touboul’s result appears robust and has the ring of truth.
His findings may help explain some trends that we observe in politics. According to psychological studies, conservatives tend to be border and boundary-minded, whereas liberals and progressives tend to be open-minded. It is easy to see how those who like borders and boundaries can be interpreted as conformist. They follow the rules and the norms and respect borders and traditions. By the same token, open-minded people tend to like to transgress rules, boundaries, and norms. They are the stereotypical anti-conformists.
Thus, roughly speaking, we can view people on the right as conformist and those on the left as anti-conformist. If Touboul’s model is correct, a society where open-mindedness is encouraged will lead to political polarization, as those who are on the left become ever more alike and position themselves opposite the conformists.
This is indeed what we observe in America today. As those on the left have become more radicalized, they sound more alike, as exemplified by the so-called NPC meme.
Social Justice Fads
The primary example of political anti-conformism is the growing hatred and condemnation of America as racist, sexist, bigoted, Islamophobic, and homophobic. Another major example is the rejection of capitalism because it is fascist and destroying the planet through climate change.
The underlying theme of all these positions is an unwillingness to conform to what is considered mainstream in values and culture.
However, as Touboul’s model indicates, when the anti-conformists and conformists are nearly equal in number, trends may change randomly and suddenly in the whole population. Could the social justice fad have finally run its course? If so, this may be a major opportunity for conservatives and libertarians to attract people who are growing tired of the straitjacket of anti-conformist conformism.