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HomeTechnologyOpinion - Marcelo Viana: Mathematics explains the 'hipster' paradox

Opinion – Marcelo Viana: Mathematics explains the ‘hipster’ paradox


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Anyone with teenage children has seen it happen. Young people reject established standards, they want to bring their individuality, do things differently. And the result is that they all end up looking very much the same, in what they wear, in their haircut, in the way they talk, in what they do.

The “hipster” effect (or paradox), as this phenomenon is called, is far from being something specific to youth. In domains as diverse as the social sciences, economics and finance or the neurosciences, it is observed that the interaction between a majority group and a certain number of non-conformists (hipsters), who reject the majority standard, often leads to non-conformists gradually synchronize their attitudes in such a way that they end up adopting identical behaviors, creating a new type of conformism. Nor is it exclusive to humans: components of certain materials (“spin glasses”) do the same.

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Years ago, researcher Jonathan Toubol, from Brandeis University, in the United States, provided an explanation for this counterintuitive phenomenon. In work published in the scientific journal “Discrete and Continuous Dynamical Systems”, Toubol presented a mathematical model —set of equations— that describes the evolution of a system formed by a conformist majority and a certain number, greater or lesser, of hipsters who oppose to mainstream standards.

His study of this model showed that, starting from very varied initial situations, the hipster group goes through a kind of metamorphosis (phase transition) in which its members synchronize their behavior with each other, always in opposition to the majority. Toubol concludes that, far from being a paradox, the hipster effect is an inevitable result of interaction within large groups of agents.

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A publication on this subject in the “MIT Technology Review” had an unexpected and uncomfortable effect. A man who considers himself a non-conformist, dissatisfied with the article, threatened to sue the magazine, accusing it of having used a photo stolen from his social networks as an illustration, without authorization.

Turns out he was wrong, the photo wasn’t his: it was a stock photo, legally acquired by the magazine, which represented a male model of a hipster with a beard, wearing a printed flannel shirt and a wool hat.

Turns out the two men and their looks were identical! Toubol must have smiled…

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