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The Psychology of Hipsterdom

What reaction are hipsters going for?

Hipsters are all around us: drinking their underroasted coffee, sporting funny facial hair and wearing knitted hats. I’m not a hipster myself. But some of my best friends are.

But what makes a hipster a hipster? What is the essence of hipsterdom? Is it just what they wear and drink? Is it just a passing fashion? I really don’t think so. The best characterization of hipsterdom I know comes from the sitcom Happy Endings: only like things ironically.

Hipsters do not actually like their vintage cell phones. They only like them ironically. If we want to understand what it is like to be a hipster, we need to understand the reaction these choices aim to trigger.

So the question is: What reaction are true hipsters shooting for when they grow an ironic mustache? My claim is that they are shooting for imaginative resistance. Imaginative resistance has been a fashionable topic in philosophy and psychology in the last 20 years. The gist is this: When we read certain stories, we just fail to (or not willing to) imagine what they ask us to imagine.

This is surprising, because we normally have no trouble going along with the wildest fictional utterances, for example, when we read science fiction. But sometimes we just have an odd jerking feeling of something just being off, which prevents us from going along with the story.

Here is a famous and brief example from Ken Walton: “Giselda was doing the right thing when she killed her baby, after all, she was a girl.” When we reach the last words of this sentence, there is resistance to go along with the story: you need to look twice, whether you got that right. We experience imaginative resistance. Here is a somewhat longer example from Steve Yablo:

They flopped down under the great maple. One more item to find, and yet the game seemed lost. Hang on, Sally said. It's staring us in the face.This is a maple tree we're under. She grabbed a jagged five-fingered leaf. Here was the oval they needed! They ran off to claim their prize.

When we get to the second last sentence, we’re a little bit taken aback. What do you mean oval? Is it five-fingered then or oval? Surely, it can’t be both. Again, you are tempted to go back and read the sentence again. We can and would go along with the wildest crazy and even impossible stories of Bugs Bunny talking and Wile E. Coyote surviving being flattened, but certain (often moral) claims we just can’t swallow.

A lot has been written about just what sentences trigger imaginative resistance and why. There are many theories of how imaginative resistance works and how it depends on the genre and on our background assumptions. I don’t want to get into the explanations of imaginative resistance, what I’m interested in here is just the phenomenon itself.

And we just don’t get what hipsters are up to unless we have a version of this reaction of imaginative resistance to them. Is that guy really wearing a mustache like Captain Hook? Seriously? Why does she have a flip phone that was outdated even 10 years ago? Does she think it’s still the 90s? You need to look again, just to double-check. This is very similar to imaginative resistance.

My claim is that hipsters want you to have this kind of experience. It is not about a certain look. It is about the experience this certain look triggers in you, by virtue of imaginative resistance. It is about making people incredulous. But making people incredulous is not easy.

In other words, being a hipster is hard work. It’s not enough to have the facial hair. Knitted hats are not enough either. If you are a hipster, you’re trying to achieve something. You are trying to achieve a look that makes people incredulous.

A consequence of this way of thinking about hipsters is that triggering imaginative resistance is getting more and more difficult. We get used to the hipsteresque features and they no longer take us aback. So hipsters need to come up with stronger and stronger fashion statements so that they can still get you to have this imaginative resistance experience.

When all the other hipsters are wearing the long beard/short hair on the side combo, that look will no longer trigger imaginative resistance.

Source: Pexels

You have to go for something stronger. Maybe the pointy mustache?

Source: StockSnap,io

But when people get used to that, you have to push even further. As I said, being a hipster is very hard work indeed and it’s just getting more and more difficult.

A final thought. This whole hipster thing started in the 90s. Innocent times, if we look back from 2017. Bill Clinton, Altavista, Ross and Rachel—life seemed simple. Not much could make you incredulous—we needed hipsters to do so.

But it’s 2017 now. What was the last time you read the news without being incredulous? The unimaginable now happens on a daily basis. Anything hipsters can do will look dull compared to an average White House press conference. We live in a world where imaginative resistance is out default reaction. And, frankly, this makes me feel nostalgic for the innocent world of hipsterdom.

(c) Bence Nanay

Originally published at

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