Hipsters Decoded: Study Finds Social Logic of Trends

Do friends influence your taste? Harvard study says, not really. Image credit: Forest Woodward/Getty Images

Have you always liked wearing oversized glasses and flannel shirts? Or do you like them just because your friends do? A group of Harvard researchers may have found the social logic behind these hipster trends.

The researchers kept tabs on the Facebook profiles of 200 college students for four years. They found that when friends liked the same kinds of music and movies, it wasn't because they influenced one another's tastes, but because their shared interests made them more likely to become friends in the first place.

"On Facebook, we found that peer influence plays virtually no role among students. Students do not tend to adopt preferences that their friends express," said Kevin Lewis, a doctoral student at Harvard and the study's lead author.

For all the PBR-sipping hipsters jamming to Belle and Sebastian, adopting someone else's tastes even seems to be the height of uncoolness.  The researchers found that students who liked indie and alternative bands were more likely to drop those interests once their friends started liking them too.

"Part of these tastes is not just expressing them but being the only one in your social circle to express them," Lewis said. "It's not just about liking the band, but showing your peers that you're hip, in the know, and socially distinct."

Lewis and his colleagues did find one type of taste that tends to rub off among friends: the taste for jazz and classical music, perhaps because of its value as a "high status cultural symbol," the authors said.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may cause a problem for Don Draper types. A popular theory of marketing is that people will want to buy products because their friends have them. Based on his study, Lewis noted that this idea may need some updating.

"Lots of models are premised on the notion that tastes do spread among peers," Lewis said. "Maybe more research should be done on what kinds of tastes are more likely to spread."