Why non-conformists always end up looking alike

Go ahead, try and be different.

  • Anti-conformists have an odd way of ending up looking like each other.
  • A Brandeis mathematician looks at how this synchronicity occurs.
  • Understanding the mechanism behind non-conformist conformity has applications in other areas, like the stock market.

We're here for such a short time, and we'd like to think we matter. "I'm not just one more person — I'm different." That's true, and also… not. We're very much like one another, though the particular details of our lives are, of course, pretty unique. Still, particularly in the Western world, we like to be seen as separate from — and better than? — the herd. Many of us go out of our way to look different than "them," too, declaring our uniqueness in our appearance.

So, how come so many individual anti-conformists end up looking alike? It's called the "hipster effect," and a study from Brandeis University mathematician Jonathan Touboul explains how it happens.

It's not just an issue of visual fashion, by the way. As Touboul tells Technology Review, "Beyond the choice of the best suit to wear this winter, this study may have important implications in understanding synchronization of nerve cells, investment strategies in finance, or emergent dynamics in social science."

The purpose of the study

Image source: LDWYTN / Shutterstock

While anti-conformists may, at first, succeed in devising their own personal brand of sartorial rebelliousness, it's followed by an inevitable, if unintentional, synchronization around a single appearance. Touboul's study looks at how such people seem to inevitably become synchronized. He suspects that a major influence on the way it happens may be the speed of propagation of styles through a culture.

Not everyone learns about or adopts new styles in the same way. Some follow fashion closely, some go by word of mouth, and some emulate the appearance of well-known individuals they admire. In the latter case, the tipping-point may occur after a mutually-revered celebrity adopts a new fashion.

Modeling individuality

(Toubal)

In Touboul's simple model, one is either a member of the mainstream or a hipster (no snarky connotation intended), and he explores different hipster-to-mainstream ratios. He also factors in different amounts of time it might take a hipster to detect a new style and respond to it.

Simple as his model is, Touboul has found that experimenting with those two factors produces a surprisingly complex set of behaviors, though synchronization always occurs. Even when he revises his model to allow for more than two types of people, synchronization still occurs.

Often, of course, roles may swap when there are so many hipsters that they become the mainstream. "For example," says Touboul, "if a majority of individuals shave their beard, then most hipsters will want to grow a beard, and if this trend propagates to a majority of the population, it will lead to new, synchronized, switch to shaving." An odd sudden swap occurs when the number of mainstreamers and hipsters is roughly equal — everybody winds up switching together between different trends.

Next up

Answering why this last phenomenon occurs is an area cited by Touboul for further study.

It also bears saying that Touboul's modeling isn't really just about hipsters — it's about the manner in which any group of people suddenly decide to act in lockstep contrary to the mainstream. One example he mentions would be the stock market, in which a number of investors may suddenly conclude there's money to be made in acting contrary to the majority attitude.

A deeper understanding of the dynamics underlying such events, which new research hopefully will provide, would obviously be helpful.

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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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