The Physics Of Nonconformity: Why Difference Always Looks The Same

I came across an interesting paper while I was in an unblogging state last week so thought I’d share it here. Have you ever wondered why non-conformists always seem to look the same? I was struck by this last year when I saw a group of self-styled “anarchists” – of which there are many in Brighton – gathering ahead of a demonstration against something or other, or possibly nothing at all. Anyway they all struck rigidly to a particular dress code, a fact which I found amusing given their professed preference for a state of disorder. The same seems to be the case in other contexts too. A striking current example is  the fad for the “hipster” beard, but wherever you look you will find a group of people who express their desire to be different by looking exactly the same as each other.  It seems people always want to conform in some way. Perhaps we should call this conformal invariance?

Anyway, the paper investigates this – in a slightly tonggue-in-cheek manner – from the point of view of statistical physics using an approach similar to that used to study the phenomenon of the spin glass. Here is the abstract:

In such different domains as statistical physics and spin glasses, neurosciences, social science, economics and finance, large ensemble of interacting individuals taking their decisions either in accordance (mainstream) or against (hipsters) the majority are ubiquitous. Yet, trying hard to be different often ends up in hipsters consistently taking the same decisions, in other words all looking alike. We resolve this apparent paradox studying a canonical model of statistical physics, enriched by incorporating the delays necessary for information to be communicated. We show a generic phase transition in the system: when hipsters are too slow in detecting the trends, they will keep making the same choices and therefore remain correlated as time goes by, while their trend evolves in time as a periodic function. This is true as long as the majority of the population is made of hipsters. Otherwise, hipsters will be, again, largely aligned, towards a constant direction which is imposed by the mainstream choices. Beyond the choice of the best suit to wear this winter, this study may have important implications in understanding dynamics of inhibitory networks of the brain or investment strategies finance, or the understanding of emergent dynamics in social science, domains in which delays of communication and the geometry of the systems are prominent.

Comments through the usual channel please!



12 Responses to “The Physics Of Nonconformity: Why Difference Always Looks The Same”

  1. Simon Woolley Says:

    In the late 80s there was a hardcore metal band called Corrosion of Conformity. All four of them had long hair, metal t shirts, skate shorts and basketball boots. Says it all really.

  2. I think it depends on whether non-conformity is a goal in itself. In this case, perhaps paradoxically, uniforms are the rule. Best example is probably the punk kit. On the other hand, consider the hippies (note for the young ones: not the same as hipsters): though perceived to be non-conformist, this was not an end in itself. In other words, it was more positive affirmation of what one likes, rather than negative rejection of what one doesn’t like. Yes, this resulted in non-conformity, but within the movement there was much more variety than among punks, teds, new romantics, mods, rockers, etc. Also, most would probably be glad if their ideals became mainstream, whereas as soon as a punk hairdo is in a fashion magazine, it becomes unacceptable to the punks, who then move to the post-punk state.

    Hippies were broadly categorized by the usual sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, say a more liberal view of sexuality, “mind-enhancing” drugs, and rock music, but also by left-wing politics, long hair and lack of shaving, and mysticism. However, it was possible to leave one or more of these out and still be accepted, whereas most other movements have an all-or-nothing approach.

    I can understand some movements to some extent, the mods, say, even though that is not my scene at all. There is a sort of internal logic, though. On the other hand, punk just seems phony. In the words of Steve Hackett (still sporting his 70s ‘do): “When punk swept in, it was prejudice incarnate, ignorance hailed as virtue.” Punk fashion was supposed to be not only non-conformist, but also “from the street” and so on, but in reality Malcolm McLaren and Vivenne Westwood designed the stuff and the punks bought them from money begged off of pedestrians.

    • Another interesting aspect of the hippie movement is that it is essentially the only youth movement to influence mainstream society. In the 1970s, even BBC television news reporters (who used to be required to wear a dinner jacket when reading the news—on the radio!), as well as mainstream astronomers, were sporting bright colours, wide ties and lapels, sideburns, long(er) hair, facial hair etc. I haven’t seen any similar influences from mods, teds, punks, new romantics, goths,etc.

  3. telescoper Says:

    It’s interesting how these movements morph into each other. The “hipster” of the late 1940s (an aficianado of bebop) is a very different creature from the variety we find today.;the mods of the 1960s evolved from the “modernist” fans of bebop (i.e. the hipsters), but their style bore very little relation to the “hippies” whose name derived from “hipster”….

  4. The Wikipedia article on the “raggare” subculture (primarily Swedish, but no more typical of Sweden than punk was typical of London in the early 1980s; much less so, in fact) contains many gems which could apply to many other subcultures:

    “While the raggare movement has its roots in late 1950s youth counterculture, today it is associated mainly with middle aged men who enjoy meeting and showing off their retro American cars. However, the subculture retains its rural and small town roots as well as its blue collar and low brow feel. The original phenomenon unleashed moral panic but the contemporary raggare subculture tends to be met with amusement or mild disapproval by mainstream society.”

    “When no American tailfins are available, raggare are sometimes forced to improvise, like using a Mercedes.”

    “Raggare have been described as closely related to the hot rod culture, but while hotrodders in the US have to do extensive modifications to their cars to stand out, raggare can use stock US cars and still standout compared to the more sober Swedish cars.”

  5. In your opinion, is true non-conformity even a possiblity? Can it only be achieved by not trying to achieve it?

    • Igibbertiflibbet. I just tried to fail to conform to the rules of spelling. Whether I succeeded or not I shall leave to you. This is rather Wittgensteinian – “whereof we cannot speak…..”

    • telescoper Says:

      I always have a problem with things that define themselves by what they’re not…

      …but it seems a part of human nature that we all need to belong to something, “nonconformism” doesn’t really mean “not conforming to anything”; but instead “conforming to something other than the majority thing”. Nonconformists seem to conform more strongly than conformists, actually.

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