Fear and Loathing in Hipsterville

You know them when you see them. You know what you think: “Fucking Hipsters.”

There they are with their skinny jeans or their trucker caps. They’re sitting there with their artisanal fill-in-the-blank and just exuding contempt for you, because that’s their main characteristic. Because looking down their nose over their waxed handle-bar mustache with you or your music or your lifestyle or your appearance is their defining characteristic. That and being shallow.

But is it true?

Is that woman you saw sporting a trucker hat, that dirty hipster, really sneering at you? Or, is she just trying to be her own creative self and really, deep-down, you don’t like creative people. Maybe you find them obnoxious. Maybe you even resent them.

Kinda harsh?

Well, before we come back to the woman in the skinny jeans and trucker hat, wearing a striped top over a shirt with clashing stripes, let’s look at an important group of people who most of us want to love and promote creativity: teachers.

These are the people who help our children, the next generation meet their potential. These are the people you imagine supporting the writers, designers and other creatives of the future. But do they? A journal article Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom?, attempts to answer that question, and–if you’re like me–the results will depress you. It reviews two related studies of teachers and students in the classroom:

Judgments for the favorite student were negatively correlated with creativity; Judgments for the least favorite student were positively correlated with creativity.

Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom? – Abstract

Later:

Research has indicated that teachers prefer traits that seem to run counter to creativity, such as conformity and unquestioning acceptance of authority… The reason for teachers’ preferences is quite clear–creative people tend to have traits that some have referred to as obnoxious (Torrance, 1963.)

Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom? – Body

There’s that word, “obnoxious.” The italics are from the original. The authors go on to try to understand the reason that while teachers say they value creativity they punish and discourage it in the classroom. I think most of us are like the teachers. We hear the message that we’re supposed to value creativity; we’re supposed to innovate. But the reality is, our value of creativity is domain and context specific and we rarely want to pay the price. [1]

On my second anniversary, while we were preparing to walk out the door to a nice dinner, a pipe burst in the ceiling. The last thing I wanted my plumber to do, when he was repairing the pipe, is try out a new idea with materials or pipe welding. Just fix the goddamn leak. If he’d told me that he had been experimenting with a new kind of welding technique that might be very expensive and might not work, but would last much longer if it did, I would have found a new plumber.

Barry M Staw wrote an excellent paper entitled Why No One Really Wants Creativity. Everyone should read it. While he doesn’t make explicit reference to it, he’s indirectly referencing experimental economics and points out that the majority of people and organizations aren’t creative and don’t want to be. [2]

In terms of decision style, most people fall short of the creative ideal. They are satisficers rather than searchers for the optimal or most desirable solution. They follow a number of energy-saving heuristics that generally lead to a set of systematic biases or inaccuracies in processing information. And, unless they are held accountable for their decision-making strategies, they tend to find the easy way out—either by not engaging in very careful thinking or by modeling the choices on the preferences of those who will be evaluating them.

Barry M Staw

Staw isn’t berating the uncreative, he’s describing it. He seems to believe that creativity isn’t a good strategy:

The average person may become intrigued when the glories of successful creativity are hailed by the media. But when confronted with the bald truth that most scientists never come up with any earthshaking findings, most new businesses end in failure, and most whistle-blowers get demoted or fired, it is not surprising that people generally opt for a safer, more normal life than that followed by the creative.

He goes on to describe a similar effect of conformity in organizations and the costs and risks of creativity. It’s not a negative piece, but one that realistically looks at the cost benefit of different strategies creativity or conformity. His point is that usually conformity is more rational and more consistent with the behavior of the majority of humanity.[3]

But that was 1995.

Now, the cost of conformism is going up. Almost none of us will work at one job for a lifetime and retire with a gold watch and a pension. And for many of us, creating our own meaning in life and work is key. Almost a decade after Staw wrote that piece, Richard M. Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class. where we see the rising rewards of non-conformism. [4]

We see a woman wearing a trucker hat, wayfarers, and holding a can of PBR.

Sophy Bot

Sophy Bot speaks about her experience and her book The Hipster Effect. It’s a history of the creative, the rise of the Hipster, and a study on why we find them obnoxious. She discusses social signaling and how, in a modern world where people are able to live the mobile lifestyle and freed from their traditional roles and communities, chances are you won’t understand the social signals someone is trying to send. Or that, in their freedom, they may not be concerned with your interpretation of their signaling. The book begins with a quick jaunt though previous iterations of non-conformist subcultures: flappers, hippies and punk. At its heart, her book is about creatives, by definition, look for new ways of doing things–they are non-conformists in some dimension–and what could be more creative than choosing the way you live.

That rubs people the wrong way.

“Kids these days.”

When you’re still doing the same old thing, it’s not surprising that when you see someone diving into something new or living some way that you feel judged. But where is the judgement really coming from? I’m sure the negative hipster stereotype exists: any group large enough to be referred to a such will contain a non-trivial percentage of assholes.

You don’t have to go out and buy your skinny jeans, but when there’s a group of people you don’t like, sometimes it pays to reflect on what it is that bothers you about them and why.


  1. This reminds me of one of Penn Jillette’s stories. Penn was and is a tee-totaler. He frequently remarks on how he’s never tasted a sip of wine or tried illegal drugs. But in high-school he was regularly singled out as some kind of hippy drug user. Simply because of his non-conformism.  ↩
  2. Since I can’t have a blog post without an Econtalk reference, here’s Vernon Smith discussing experimental economics. For those of you who haven’t encountered MarginalRevolution.com, here’s Tyler Cowan’s post referencing his paper where he discusses neurodiversity. And a good wired article for the less economically minded.  ↩
  3. This is where the topic of the results of Experimental economics and neurodiversity would have been really interesting to introduce. But Staw wrote this in 1995. Research in both fields seem to indicate that humanity is deeply diverse, but a majority follow the satisficer path and the heuristics shaw mentions. Given the billions of humanity, the minorities of behavior and neurology aren’t trivial at all.  ↩
  4. And in the reaction, we’ve all seen attempts to industrialize creative work. To change creative work so that the“creatives” will the be the “fungible resources” of the corporate world. We’ve seen the attempts to dumb down technology and turn it into the widget cranking if McDonalds and we’ve seen the desolate corporate IT landscapes that resulted. In retrospect, you’d think it would be obvious the result of removing creativity from creative work would be a disaster.  ↩