The Hipster Paradox: The Science of Why Hipsters Are So Mainstream

(Editor’s note: This article is from the Summer 2016 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)


Where I work, my customers drink beer, a lot of beer. But not the trendy, craft microbrews flooding in from San Diego and Portland. They drink cheap beer — Coors, Budweiser, and, most of all, Pabst. They bring out their finest plaid shirts, Stetson high-crown hats, and Western boots for a night full of Bootscootin’ Boogying and Watermelon Crawlin’ on the dance floor. Yes, I work at a country bar. Fittingly, we cater to a country crowd that could be spotted by their distinct style. When I first started working there, I, too, dressed the part. I bought cowboy boots even though my feet screamed in agony as I endured the “break-in period” on the clock. I purchased plaid shirt after plaid shirt — the retail associates at Boot Barn knew me by name. Weekend nights, I got in line and danced the night away with my patrons. Hell, I even became an ace at line dancing. Spoiler alert: It’s the same moves repeated over and over. But under my cowboy hat existed a secret — a little white lie.

My hair was neatly combed across my head, held in place with pomade, with a permanent part shaved in. Under my boots were crazy colored socks. The minute I left work, I left with it my country-boy exterior as I blasted modern, indie folk for my drive home.

Over time, the crowd began to change. The cowboys rode away and were slowly replaced with the standard Midtown Sacramento millennial drinker — think Portland-style 20-somethings. Side-parted hairstyles and long, scraggly beards replaced full-brim cowboy hats. Skinny jeans in place of boot cuts. Converse sneakers instead of Western boots.

“This place is becoming such a hipster bar,” one of my co-workers would complain. Our bar was being overrun with this new style, a look that was far off from the established, country style — and for that matter, country values. I knew what she meant when she said hipster. It was a colloquial term thrown around often, and the mere mention of it was accompanied by a collective judgment. Turns out, everyone loves to hate the hipster.

I always thought “hipster” referred to a trend, but at the same time, there wasn’t one distinct style that defined all of its participants. Sure, they have become known as the culture of skinny jeans, fake reading glasses, unkempt beards, plaid shirts, and, famously, the Man Bun. However, all of these things are just a “look” no different from a fashion trend. Plus, the proverbial hipster always seemed to be changing and evolving in style. They were rarely consistent in their outward identity compared to other subcultures. Cowboys always wear boots, Goths conform to wearing black, skaters are loyal to their Converse, and so on.

One day, I showed up to work without a hat, having just gotten a fresh hair cut from one of the local “hipster” barbershops. I kept my flannel but ditched the rest of my cowboy style for raw denim, slim-fit jeans, and my old Converse. It was no different than how I dressed on a daily basis outside of work. Immediately my co-worker noticed: “What are you wearing?! Ugh, you’re such a hipster.”

There was that word again, that label. I was taken aback by being labeled anything, much less a hipster. Clearly, she must’ve been confused. I was merely being me — the “me” that transcended labels. In my mind, the only trends I followed weren’t trends because I wasn’t trying to fit any sort of defined look. But wait, am I a hipster by accident? What does that even mean?

It’s a superficial topic, but I posed it anyway because my identity was at stake. So, I posted a Facebook status asking, “How would you define a hipster? Does it refer to one’s style, taste in mu- sic, or something more than material choices?” The responses began to flow in: “PBR drinkers, guys with Man Buns, people who ride fixie bikes, coffee shop snobs, f–king hipsters, ugh!” All of these responses seemed to point to particular attributes of a hipster without pinning down the actual definition of what makes one a hipster. But there was one comment from a user living in Los Angeles, a city that contains well-known hipster neighborhoods like Silver Lake and Los Feliz. She put the definition simply: “Someone who appreciates individuality and their own unique ideas outside the cultural mainstream.” And there it was — the definition that gave reason to it all.

It’s true — the hipster wants to be authentic, apart from the rest, and as a result, ahead of the trends. As Urban Dictionary puts it, they strive for ideas that spark enlightenment and awareness, they value independent thinking, counterculture, progressive politics, and carry an appreciation for creativity, intelligence, and unique ideas. Hipsterism isn’t a material trend. It’s a mindset. And it all boils down to a universal desire for autonomy.

Growing up, we’re all told to be different and unique, to lead our own path and not follow the crowd. We admire social trendsetters and leaders. We reward entrepreneurs, innovators, and people with novel ideas while we criticize imitation and punish plagiarism. Imitation in any form is rarely valued.

But when you really think about it, why is it that our brains are hardwired to seek out individuality? Researcher Carol Ryff asked this same question in her exploration of what leads to well-being. She found that individuality is one of the most important factors affecting our psychological wellness, especially as we grow up. Furthermore, the desire to be autonomous, whether it is in our thinking or in our actions, motivates us in the pursuit of our goals more so than anything else. It’s how we achieve happiness.

In the book, “Uniqueness: The Human Pursuit of Difference,” researchers C.R. Snyder and Howard Fromkin take this even further. They looked into why we all strive so hard to attain individuality. According to their uniqueness theory, people find high levels of similarity as well as dissimilarity unpleasant. As a result, they seek to be somewhat distinct from others and establish their own uniqueness.

To test this, Snyder and Fromkin conducted a study giving students false feedback about how similar their responses on a lifestyle survey were to answers given by other respondents. They then asked the students to rate their own moods. Consistent with their prediction, Snyder and Fromkin found that the students who were told that they were relatively similar to other respondents reported more positive moods than did students who were told that they were either very similar or very dissimilar to other respondents.

But here’s the thing: By seeking autonomy and authenticity in an effort to avoid labels, foregoing conventional mainstream ideas, and going against the majority, somehow these individuals all end up looking the same. It’s something that’s true for any group, whether hipsters, bikers, or stock traders. Being anti-trend has become its own trend, and the need for individuality effectively becomes a collective label in the process. Oh, the irony of it all.

This paradox was actually evaluated using none other than statistical mathematics. Jonathan Touboul — a mathematical neuroscientist at the College de France, Paris — used a bunch of highly complex equations to see if it was actually possible to be “hip” and unique when everyone else is attempting to do the same. According to Touboul, if you take large sets of individuals who are trying to be different, they will ultimately all do the same thing at the same time. The reason for this involves the time it takes for an individual to register the decisions of others. You cannot be aware of what other people decide in real time.

In essence, all hipsters eventually have to conform to the notion of nonconformity. This could explain why the term “hipster” has become such an insult among them. The hipster movement has become so mainstream that labeling people as part of it is just another way of calling them unoriginal. You see, hipsters want to be the inventors of novelties; pride comes from knowing, and deciding what’s cool ahead of the rest of the world. It justifies the mindset of inner superiority — the feeling that I am irreplaceable and am leaving an impact on the world.

Except that, we can’t help but conform and copy others. Sorry hipsters. It’s prewired into our brains, priming us to adapt both culturally and socially. A study carried out by neuroscientist Vasily Klucharev of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, found that when people hold an opinion differing from their peers in a group setting, their brains actually produce an error signal that increases cortisol levels and produces anxiety. The findings explain why going along with the group and following trends feels good. Nothing is more human than giving in to the crowd. It would also prove that finding a true, authentic hipster is about as likely as finding a unicorn.

So what’s hipsterism really about? Simply put, it’s the notion of “self.” It’s being open to learning and experiencing new things, and with that experience comes wisdom. It’s accepting one’s image of “self” and having the personal autonomy to change and adapt and learn. Most importantly, it’s about becoming more open-minded in an ever more connected, homogeneous society. Hipsterism is not just a current trend — it’s a way of thinking.


And if all of that is true, if being a hipster means being open to new ideas, then I’ll gladly accept my newfound definition of “self.” You can call me a hipster any day. Wait, actually don’t. Labels are, like, so not hip.

(Editor’s note: This article is from the Summer 2016 issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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