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HughRistik comments on Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism - Less Wrong

149 Post author: Yvain 13 September 2010 09:36PM

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Comment author: HughRistik 14 September 2010 12:59:40AM *  25 points [-]

I think this post speaks of an interesting signaling element in societal dialectics. Let's call your hypothesis the "contrarian signaling" hypothesis. But to me, your post also hints at a couple other hypotheses behind this behavior.

The first hypothesis is the mundane one: that people end up in this groups with positions contrary to other positions, because those are just the positions that are more plausible to them, and they decide their subcultures out of their actual tastes. The reason that people divide themselves into groups with contrary views is because people have different phenotypes. I'm sure you've already thought of it, but I want to say a little more about it.

Under this hypothesis, hipster are hipsters primarily because they like retro clothes (and other aspects of the culture). They would have worn these same clothes back when they were in fashion; whereas true contrarians wouldn't have. This might be easier to imagine with another overlapping subculture: hippies. Hippies don't idolize the 60's to be contrarian: they idolize the 60's because they like the ideals of the 60's and feel nostalgic for them.

Now, you may say that the 60's were a contrarian time (which could make idolizing it still evidence contrarianism), so let's look at some other examples: steampunks and cyberpunks, who idolize technology (of the past/alternative past, or of the future, respectively). Are these folks romanticizing technology to be contrarian? Maybe, but I think there is a good chance that they just have some personality trait that leads them to think technology is cool. Similarly, I bet a lot of goths would enjoy the macabre and wear black clothing regardless of whether those tastes were contrary to the mainstream culture.

A good test of this hypothesis would be to ask, if the culture became more like your group, would you act the same way, or would you feel motivated to join some sort of new group that's contrarian to the way your culture now works? If everyone started dressing retro, would the hipsters start wearing suits? If everyone dressed in black, would the goths start wearing white? If most intelligent, educated people starting being skeptical of global warming, would current global warming skeptics quietly switch sides?

My second hypothesis is a social affiliation hypothesis: People divide themselves into subcultures/groups with contrary views not (just) because they want to signal their greater intelligence and taste than people of the inferior group of people, but because they like the people in that group. Under this hypothesis, being contrarian "isn't about being contrarian": it's about affiliating with other people who you like for other reasons.

Under this hypothesis, hipsters are hipsters not primarily because they want to show themselves as contrarian, or because they even like hipster aesthetics, but because they like the other people who are hipsters and want to affiliate with them. Goths wear black clothes not because they want to be different or because they like black, but because they like the sorts of people who also wear black clothes. Global warming skeptics/believers profess their beliefs because they want to affiliate and interact with other people who are global warming skeptics/believers.

(For instance, you might have some other position that you want to convince these people of, and then you use your shared position on global warming as a bridge to believe your other position... this I think is part of the mechanism by which we see correlations between different political and policy beliefs. Your friend comes over and says "hey yo, you know we agree on X which shows that I'm epistemically trustworthy and the type of person who you agree with... check out this other cool belief Y!").

A good test of this hypothesis would be if you're in a group, and your friends migrated to a different group, would you follow them, or would you stay? If you ran into another group of people who were more like you (but their group had different aesthetics, or wasn't contrarian), would you join their group, or stay with your current one?

None of these hypotheses are mutually exclusive: typically, people join a group because they like the practices and ideas of the group, because they like the personality traits of the people, and because they want to be contrarians who define themselves as different and superior to another group. These factors probably have different weights for different people in different groups.

Comment author: Relsqui 14 September 2010 09:59:03AM *  10 points [-]

But to me, your post also hints at a couple other hypotheses behind this behavior.

My reading of the post was not so much that it proposed contrarianism as an explanation for other cultural divisions, but that peoples' inclination towards a given level of contrarianism is itself a cultural division. We don't need to hypothesize about why people are metacontrarians; we're defining them by the habit of being metacontrary.

However, your hypotheses are still interesting in their own right. I predict that, were we to run your experiments, the first one would tend to describe the early adopters of a given subculture--the first hipster actually liked those dumb glasses, etc.--and later members would increasingly be described by the latter.

This is roughly what Gladwell's Tipping Point is about, actually.

check out this other cool belief Y!

I think that this is how all debates (and evangelism) should sound.

Comment author: FrogSaga 05 March 2013 04:53:47PM 1 point [-]

The account of the nouveau riche's ostentatious behavior and appearance compared to the relatively subtle expressions exhibited by the old-money generation has causes and explanations far beyond "counter-signaling". I do not mean to say that counter-signaling doesn't play a part; however it's a small facet and not nearly as important as other factors.

(I realize that this may come off as overly nit-picky or outright derailing. However, as the bit I am critiquing is one of your foundational points to your article; I feel there is value in calling attention to it.)

You did not account for the nouveau riche generation's updated social conditioning factors such as the increase in the volume and effectiveness of mass-marketing. It's important to know what sort of films, books, advertising trends, etc were prevalent and popular during the nouveau riche's formative years. What sort of values became most important in society? So much changed in people psychologically with the rise of consumer culture, such that it is impossible to track human behavior unless we take that rather sudden cultural evolution into account.

A person does not need to be counter-signaling when she or he identifies with a particular demographic. A very simple example: The child with enormous wealth watches the same cartoons as the middle class child and learns a similar set of social standards and values; and both children remain in a similar marketing demographic as they age. When the wealthy child becomes an adolescent, she or he will still attribute value to certain types of behaviors and appearances.