When enough contrarians actively resist mainstream trends, their nonconformity may actually align. Ergo beardsplosion.

Neuroscientist Jonathan Touboul calls it "the hipster loop" or "the hipster effect." His research involves neurons that, Touboul says, behave like hipsters, in that "they fire when every neuron around them is quiet; or they fall silent when every neuron around them is chattering." But members of society do not have immediate knowledge of cultural trends. Neither do neurons immediately recognize what other neurons are up to. As The Washington Post's Jeff Guo puts it:

[Touboul's] key insight is that people (and neurons) do not instantly perceive what is mainstream. There's a delay. And in situations where the delay is large enough, the contrarians can inadvertently synchronize with each other.

Touboul has published some fun mathematical models to go along with this insight, on the pre-print repository at arXiv. Over at WaPo, he and Guo walk us through what we can discern from models like this one:

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Here's Touboul:

...a random imbalance will be detected after some time and all anticonformist individuals will tend to disalign to this trend, regardless of the fact that an increasing proportion of them do and therefore yield a clear bias towards the opposite trend. This will be detected at later times, leading to a reciprocal switch, and these oscillations will periodically repeat. Despite their efforts, at all times, anticonformists fail being disaligned with the majority.

And here's Guo's translation:

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The hipsters are still recoiling from the mainstream, but each holds an outdated concept of what the mainstream is. Because they are slow to react, they end up all looking alike, and all changing fashions at the same time. (Irony of ironies!)

Note that this is actually different from out-group homogeneity bias, our tendency to look at people beyond our social circles (hipster or otherwise) and proclaim "they're all the same." In fact, out-group homogeneity bias could be described as the very engine that drives hipsters toward synchronization. As we recently explained:

The other people in someone's group of friends, co-workers, or acquaintances are wildly different individuals. All other groups are locked in a stultifying or even threatening homogeneity. At its most pernicious, out-group homogeneity bias affects how people look at other races or the people in other countries. Insiders are a group of individuals, each with their own hopes and dreams. The outsiders are a teeming mass, barely distinguishable from one another. In lighter situations, it can be nothing more than a human trait worth a bit of a chuckle. One study of sororities on a college campus found that each sorority thought they were more diverse than every other sorority.

More analysis of Touboul's models (including the usual caveats about models not accounting for the idiosyncrasies of real-life people) at WaPo.

Top Image Sources

    • Bearded hipster with glasses and hat, photographed by Christopher Michel | CC BY-NC 2.0
    • Bearded hipster with glasses and hat, photographed by Juan Luis | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
    • Bearded hipster with glasses and hat, photographed by Christopher Michel | CC BY-NC 2.0