If you’re walking through a park and notice a flock of birds picking through the grass looking for worms, you know what’ll happen if you get too close: The birds will take off almost simultaneously, and within seconds move as a unit in one direction and then another, far away from you, despite your innocent intentions. Birds, like countless other animals, share a sense of the group that not only alerts them to surprises, but also guides their actions in sync with the group’s pattern.
So here’s a question: Just how different are we from birds?
Actually, let me ask that a different way: If a thousand hipsters start oiling their beards with organic beeswax, how long will it take for a million hipsters to do the same?
To be fair, hipsters, and the rest of us, aren’t like birds in a lot of ways, but there is a group-sense inherent in human nature that lines us up favorably with birds and bees and ants and fish, though with us the dynamic is less reactive. Rather than reacting to an immediate cause, our patterns emerge in the form of social conformity. The irony is that, particularly in Western cultures, we pride ourselves on our alleged individuality.
Computational neuroscientists interested in why this happens in human communities chose hispters as their subjects for a recent study. “Hipster” in this case doesn’t so much describe a particular social group, but those with a general preference for whatever isn’t of "the mainstream."
The researchers posit that something they call the “hipster effect” asserts itself in human populations no matter how individualistic we imagine ourselves to be, because it’s individuality itself that sparks conformity. In other words, trying to be different creates patterns of likeness. Nonconformist fashion becomes group fashion. Atypical ways of communicating become typical of the group.
To test the theory in a way only computational neuroscientists would devise, the researchers created a mathematical model called the “minority game” that combined statistical physics with a bit of predictive neuroscience about how our brains detect and respond to patterns.
Study author Jonathan Touboul, a mathematical neuroscientist at the Collège de France in Paris, says that the model shows something essential about how group members make decisions that ultimately, though not immediately, result in uniformity. "If you take large sets of interacting individuals—whether hipsters, stock traders or any group that decides to go against the majority—by trying to be different, they will ultimately all do the same thing at the same time,” Touboul says. “The reason for that is 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; it takes a little while.”
Call it “sensing the zeitgeist,” or just call it our naturally attuned sense of the group—whatever terminology you prefer, the same thing happens: Given enough time, nonconformist decisions lead to group conformity.
Which brings us back to birds, because an important implication from this study is that whether or not individuals think they are acting against the mainstream, they eventually fall in line with prevailing patterns (we humans call them “trends”)—a lot like birds moving in one direction and then another, in near-perfect unison.
Whether that should lead us to despair the plight of our imagined uniqueness is debatable, but it should probably throw some welcome light on why “alternative” trends are really just patterns of likeness bubbling up in various social groups. All fashion, in fact, is just another social pattern, and as such just another flavor of conformity. We move from one fashion to the next, like birds to the next grassy field of worms—until the group signals us to move on…and on…and on….
You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.