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!



7 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. 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”….

  3. 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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