by Simryn Molina
art by Macarena Hepp
After staring at my outfit in the mirror (for a longer time than I care to admit), I finally convinced myself that I’m ready to face the fashionable world of NYC. As I leave my dorm and begin walking down the street, I pass someone wearing the best outfit I have ever seen in my life and think to myself, “Trad goth is literally the coolest.”
In a place like NYC, everywhere you go, you are faced with people dressed up in all sorts of ways. We have grown accustomed to quickly identifying which trends people buy into, and many of us manage to keep up with the changing nature of the fashion world, updating our wardrobes as needed. Why is it that we are so adept at keeping up with these trends? And why do we all have such different tastes? Digging into the neuroscience behind why we are drawn to certain styles can help us understand the reasons we have particular tastes and may even give us insight into our consumerism choices.
Subcultures and Identification
Often when you are able to identify a specific style a person is wearing, it is because that person’s fashion is a facet of their subculture. Subcultures refer to groups of people who become attached to similar fashion trends and develop a community where members may share similar styles, music tastes, hobbies, and/or beliefs . For years, sociologists have sought to understand what causes subcultures to arise, and while many researchers have found links between subcultures and a drive to resist a mainstream culture, it is difficult to pinpoint a single cause of a subculture’s emergence when it is rooted in social environment (class, societal beliefs, demographic, etc.) . Despite different ideas surrounding subcultures’ origins, many sociologists recognize that fashion is largely bound to their cores [2, 3].
People in subcultures do not mold their identities around the pre-existing subculture identity; rather, people are attracted to subcultures because their beliefs and personal sense of style align with the group’s . From a sociological angle, this act of identifying with a subculture or viewing oneself as a member has been referred to as self-categorizing . This term is connected to Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory, which argues that all social conflicts and operations can be understood by looking at people’s generalized motivations and cognitive processes . Tajfel coined the term ‘social identity’ to describe a person’s understanding of the social groups they belong to and the group’s values . Fashion also plays a role in this process of self-categorizing because people tend to conflate who they are with what they have; therefore, fashion—specifically the clothes and accessories a person chooses to wear—is often extremely intertwined with a person’s identity . This, in tandem with shared beliefs and interests, enforces the self-identification of oneself as a member of a specific subculture.
On the flip side of self-categorization is the idea of social categorization, which refers to the evaluations and assumptions we make about others in regard to the social groups they belong to . This process is often unconscious and can range from quickly evaluating the person’s gender or ethnicity based on their physiological features to identifying their subculture based on their fashion .
Why is it that we are so efficient at making these social identifications? To begin to answer this question, let’s think about Contreras et al.’s research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which has shown that the brain regions associated with the stereotypes and characterizations we make about social groups are very distinct from the regions activated when making non-social categorizations . A non-social categorization would be a descriptor like ‘is blue’ (a characteristic to describe something, like the color of the sky, that is unrelated to social categorization) while the descriptor ‘has wide hips’ would be a social category (associated with women). In contrast to the brain regions associated with general semantics for making judgments about non-social objects, when making social category-related judgments about people, the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate, bilateral temporoparietal, and anterior temporal cortex—all regions linked to social cognitive tasks—have been shown to activate. Contreras’ findings offer a better understanding of the mechanisms we have developed to make social categorization so instantaneous; just as we are able to immediately identify and label a shirt as a shirt, the specialized brain regions associated with social categorization provide us with the means to identify someone as both female and part of the grunge subculture . If you think about just how many social situations you experience in a day, even if it is just offhandedly making an assumption about someone you pass on the street, it is no wonder that our brains are so equipped to efficiently categorize the people we come in contact with–we would be utterly overwhelmed with information otherwise!
In addition to our brains distinguishing between social categorizing and other forms of categorizing, we, as humans, do not like uncertainty. The tendency we have to stereotype each other based on the groups we are part of seems to be motivated by our desire to predict other people’s behavior and beliefs to feel a sense of control . When, for example, you identify a person as a hippie based on a quick assessment of their clothing, you may also assume they value peace and love and reject capitalism because those are stereotypes about hippies. Feeling a sense of certainty in our evaluations of others can make our daily social decisions and interactions much simpler and a lot less daunting. Perhaps you decide to approach someone because the stereotypes associated with their fashion lead you to believe they are friendly; the certainty you feel in your assumptions about them makes your decision to approach them a lot quicker. This desire to feel certain about others also applies to ourselves–we want to be secure in our identities, and self-categorizing with subcultures provides us with guidelines to solidify our beliefs and personal sense of style [4, 5].
Community and Individuality.
Returning to the idea of self-categorization, why do we have the desire to join groups in the first place? In the history of human evolution, communities have been crucial for survival, so we have developed to seek community instinctively. It has been proposed that the reason most people are able to find a group they identify with, whether through shared values, interests, or fashion, is that we all have the same set of general value orientations that have emerged from sharing a similar human experience . So, in a sense, all of us are ‘looking for our people,’ which partly explains the formation of these social groups.
To promote this evolutionary survival tactic of joining groups, humans feel immense pleasure from social acceptance . Research using reward-related positivity, an event-related potential—a voltage generated in the brain in response to a stimulus—that increases when a reward is received, has shown that brain responses to social acceptance share some similarities with responses to monetary rewards [9, 10]. This increase in reward-related positivity is most enhanced when looking specifically at scenarios of social acceptance compared to social rejection . So, one of the factors spurring us to find social acceptance from groups is that we are seeking pleasure . In the brain, this process of evaluating social cues to adjust one’s behavior for optimal social acceptance is often linked to the orbital frontal cortex (OFC), an area associated with decision-making and learning consequences . The role of the OFC in social situations is further explained by its anatomical connection to the basal nuclei of the amygdala and striatum, areas that play a large role in reward processing, along with the medial frontal cortex and temporal poles, which are highly active for social knowledge . Another notable area is the ventral striatum due to its involvement with dopamine—a chemical that promotes motivation through learning rewards—systems in the midbrain . In addition to the pleasure of social acceptance, fashion can also promote a higher self-view. It has been found that when people think about the group they belong to in relation to other groups, they seem to think more highly of their own group and believe that their group is more unique . This idea of uniqueness is also a driving factor as to why people may partake in a particular fashion style. Joining a subculture satisfies the innate desire we have to feel accepted by a community and also sets us apart from mainstream culture and from other subcultures.
These intertwining community values and individual, or agentic, values associated with the motivation to join a subculture are further seen through the activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—the brain region associated with emotional processing and evaluating—when being excluded in a community, and the activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—the area associated with executive control
and top-down processing—when exclusion is related to agentic conditions . While the processes are separate, both are active during different types of social exclusion, demonstrating that both communal and agentic values play key roles in our experiences of social exclusion and acceptance . Tying this back to fashion in subcultures, the pleasure of being accepted by a group of people with similar values and style reflects community-driven values, while the pleasure of feeling unique when compared to other subcultures and the mainstream coincides with agentic values.
Of course, when dealing with social categorization, it is often the case that we overgeneralize and stereotype the people we come across. When you pass a person on the street, not only do you label their fashion style, but you also characterize them based on the stereotypes surrounding their appearance. While it may seem harmless to jump to trivial conclusions about a person you pass by and will probably never see again, these oversimplified assumptions can lead to prejudices, the negative feelings we have about a group of people based on stereotypes .
Despite our brains being wired to make these stereotypes, we can still recognize that subcultures are not entirely homogeneous and regulate the prejudices we have; in fact, the interaction between the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and lateral prefrontal cortex (lateral PFC) seems to be responsible for this type of regulation . The dACC works to detect our biases while the lateral PFC works to control our responses to subdue the biases . Being mindful of our stereotyping and biases and working toward regulating them can allow us to appreciate fashion for what it is, without negatively judging people based on what subculture their clothes reflect.
Taking a step back from the influence that our social environment has on the fashion trends and styles we enjoy, let’s look at how we come to find certain fashion trends pleasing to begin with. Think about your favorite fashionable item. Why is it your favorite? Is it flattering on your body? Does it spark a nice memory? There are many reasons why we may find an item aesthetically pleasing, and the emerging field of neuroaesthetics aims to uncover more and more of the biological bases that contribute to an aesthetic experience . Our general reward circuitry is immediately activated when we gaze at an appealing object, demonstrating that great pleasure can arise just from looking at clothing and accessories that we think are tasteful . The reason fashion trends catch on may be attributed to the fact that they have qualities that, despite people’s individualized perceptions of beauty, many people collectively find pleasing to look at . So, a person may be encouraged to partake in fashion trends because they may feel social acceptance from wearing something that is popular or because the item’s aesthetics bring them joy.
Because aesthetic experiences are so specific to each individual—as they activate emotional, sensorimotor, and cognitive mechanisms in various ways––they can explain why some may find a beautiful object to be unpleasurable, despite the majority of others disagreeing . These polarizing opinions on aesthetic value are further explained through what researchers in neuroaesthetics call the aesthetic triad . In the field of neuroaesthetics, studies focus on the interconnected sensory-motor, emotional-valuation, and meaning-knowledge circuits. Imagine you are shopping and come across a belt covered in silver rhinestones. The first step in deciding if you like it is to take in its physical properties, activating the sensory-motor brain regions, mainly the occipital lobes, fusiform gyrus, and medial temporal lobe—having to do with vision, vision processing, and spatial and episodic memory, respectively. So, you look at the belt in awe, processing how shiny and intricate it is, and become excited because you realize it would look amazing with the pair of jeans you bought last week. These feelings of awe and excitement are caused by the activation of the emotional-valuation system, consisting of the orbitofrontal and medial frontal cortex, ventral striatum, anterior cingulate, and insula. Despite being the circuit that is the least understood, the final part of the aesthetic triad, the meaning-knowledge circuit, plays a large role in our aesthetic experiences and consumer habits . Perhaps, despite thinking the belt is stunning and practical, looking at the price tag prompts you to place it back on the shelf and walk out of the store with nothing. Of course, there is also the scenario where you reason that the high price speaks to the quality of the belt and you run to the register to purchase it. As shown by those two vastly different outcomes, aesthetic experiences often do not place the same amount of importance on each system for a given situation. The amount of variation within the aesthetic experiences of an individual gives us some perspective as to why there is so much variation across different people.
To expand on the emotional-valuation system, it has been found that evaluating an object as beautiful derives from the joint activation of cortical neurons that respond to the physical aspects of an object and of the anterior insula which is an emotion-controlling center . It was also found that when participants were asked to point out which objects they like, activation of the amygdala substantially increased. This suggests that our subjective feelings
about certain objects play a very large role in our overall aesthetic appraisal. Despite variances between people and situations, it seems that the emotional reaction that one has to an object seems to oftentimes take the lead when it comes to aesthetic experiences . So the reason that your friend might find a pair of shoes to be the pinnacle of fashion while you find them to be absolutely vile may have more to do with your extremely subjective emotional reactions to the shoes rather than to an objective appraisal of their aesthetic value (despite your attempts to rationalize all the reasons why your friend should put them back on the shelf).
Nostalgia, a major player in our emotional reactions to aesthetics, is an emotional state that many of us have mixed feelings about, perfectly reflecting the mixed emotions that form it. This emotional state is often described as ‘bittersweet’ since it encompasses a wide range of emotions that may arise when a memory is evoked . The ‘bitter’ aspect comes from aching or longing for the past while the ‘sweet’ element arises from recalling positive memories. The consensus among psychologists and neuroscientists is that the overall experience of nostalgia, despite the bitter elements, is positive; it is most strongly associated with feelings of self-compassion and pride, and least associated with shame and embarrassment . While finding a neural base for this multifaceted emotion may seem tricky, Saarimäki et al.’s fMRI study confirmed that emotions do have distinct neuronal connections and, it is just that in most cases, emotions are linked to overlapping brain regions rather than just one specific area . The study found that all of the researched emotions activated areas in the visual cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, right temporal pole, supplementary motor area, and subcortical regions; however, the degree of activation and combination of regions allowed the researchers to essentially map what brain activation will look like when an emotion is experienced. It was found that positive emotions were associated with activation of the anterior frontal areas of the brain, and negative emotions activated the insula, supplementary motor area, and parts of the subcortical structures. While nostalgia was not an emotion tested in this study because it is a complex feeling that blends elements of positive and negative emotions, perhaps a combination of the regions activated for negative and positive emotions is to be expected when a person feels nostalgic .
This reasoning seems to be supported by another fMRI-based study conducted by Oba et al. which demonstrated that nostalgia,
like other complex emotions, is correlated with activity in multiple regions . The study found that nostalgia is experienced through an emotional or personal experience level—sentimental feelings, happiness—and a chronological remoteness level, or the age of the memory that triggers nostalgia and the time since the memory has last been recalled. To put this in perspective, I recently bought a pair of jelly shoes (despite the fact that they are ridiculously painful) simply because when I saw them, I was reminded of the matching jelly sandals my sister and I used to wear when we were little. Now think about a time you have experienced nostalgia—what memories were brought to mind? How did they make you feel? The answers to these questions represent, respectively, the chronological remoteness and emotional and personal aspects of nostalgia.
Continuing the discussion of Oba et al.’s finding, the study showed that the emotional and personal experience level was associated with activity in the left anterior hippocampus, which is linked to retrieval of emotionally and personally significant information; and the caudal substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), which is linked to reward. The chronological remoteness level, on the other hand, was associated with the rostral SN/VTA, which is linked to novelty. Activation of the hippocampus (HPC) in this study also provided evidence that nostalgic memories require more autobiographical memory—memories of personal events and experiences—retrieval than non-nostalgic ones. The combined activity of the HPC and ventral striatum shows that nostalgia is a process where memory retrieval and reward are intertwined. The connection between the reward system and the emotional state helps us understand why, even amongst the bitterness, nostalgia is overarchingly an emotional state that we crave . Time and time again, we consume products that spark nostalgia; in fact, like my jelly sandals, we may buy products for the sole reason that they make us feel nostalgic. Trends also operate under the assumption that nostalgia is a powerful driver of consumption. As of right now, early 2000s fashion has made a large-scale comeback and has spurred many new trends in its wake. Many people may be partaking in the y2k trend because they followed this trend in its original run in the early 2000s and have direct autobiographical memories associated with wearing the fashion and seeing it in the media. But what about Gen Z, the group that seems to have latched onto the current y2k trends the most, who were quite literally infants in the early 2000s? Why do some of us feel nostalgia for this time that we don’t actually have memories of being alive during? When trying to answer these questions, the first thing that came to mind was Lindsey Lohan—specifically, Lindsey in Freaky Friday, Mean Girls, and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. All of these movies came out when I was still in diapers, but I do have extremely vivid, fond autobiographical memories of watching them during sleepovers with friends as a kid. Perhaps this is some sort of ‘indirect’ nostalgia; my fondness for y2k fashion comes from consuming media portraying it during the late 2000s (and my happy memories of that time) rather than from directly wearing the fashion during the time it originated.
Understanding all these different processes that contribute to our decisions to indulge in or refrain from participating in fashion trends can allow us to be more conscious of our consumer habits. While we may feel drawn to certain items for a plethora of reasons, we should try to focus on only purchasing items that will serve us the most—perhaps instead of purchasing an item because it makes you nostalgic, only purchase it if it also has aesthetic appeal and truly fits with your style or subculture’s style. This way, we can fill our closets with apparel that will bring us long-term joy and use. With this in mind, happy shopping!
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