Thinking blending in is good for your career? Not necessarily. In fact, dressing differently might just help you get ahead at work.
A recent study co-authored by Harvard University doctoral student Silvia Bellezza suggested that people who go out on a limb with their clothing selections at work or in job interviews have the potential to appear more successful.
Business News Daily recently reported on Bellezza's findings. Here, we follow up with Bellezza in an email interview to learn more about being a nonconformist and the positives that come with it.
In what ways do you observe people being nonconformist?
Resistance to conformity pressures can take distinct forms across individuals. Of particular relevance to our work is Tian, Bearden and Hunter's (2001) conceptualization, which suggests that people exhibit three main behavioral manifestations of nonconformity. First, "creative choice counterconformity" refers to the tendency of some consumers to seek social differentness by selecting original, novel or unique consumer goods, such as wearing a colorful, unusual tie to a formal event. Second, "unpopular choice counterconformity" reflects the selection or use of products and brands that strongly violate and disrupt existing norms of proper conduct, like wearing a tie around one's head in a formal context. Finally, "avoidance of similarity" entails a downgrading of one's consumption style and refers to a loss of interest in, or discontinued use of, possessions, to move away from the norm and re-establish one's differentness, such as not wearing a tie in a formal context.
In our research, we focus on behavioral dimensions of nonconformity that entail some deviance from the norm but are not perceived as a strong disruption and violation of the norm. Accordingly, the manipulations in our studies center on creative nonconformity and avoidance of similarity — that is, manifestations of nonconformity within the realm of commonly accepted behaviors.
How does being different than other people make you seem more or less competent?
We argue that inferences of greater status and competence from nonconforming behavior result from observers' attributions of the nonconforming individual's autonomy. The central idea in the concept of autonomy is indicated by the etymology of the term: autos (self) and nomos (rule or law). Thus, autonomous individuals tend to act independently and behave according to their own rules. In our paper, we suggest that nonconformity can be perceived as admirable behavior that reflects high levels of autonomy and control. Deviating from the norm signals freedom and autonomy from the pressure to conform, and thus can fuel positive inferences in the eyes of others.
In order for nonconformity to boost your social status, you say in the study that it needs to be deliberate. How can that best be accomplished? Additionally, how can advertisers best take advantage of the desire by some to be nonconforming?
Our research bears potentially important managerial insights by highlighting the boundary condition of perceived intentionality on the positive inferences derived from signals of nonconformity. We demonstrate that nonconformity to normative codes and etiquette can result in inferences of greater status and competence, relative to conformity, when the deviant behavior appears to be intentional. Thus, a key question for marketers is to understand how consumers can demonstrate that they are intentionally not conforming, through brands and products.
What makes nonconformity seem more intentional in consumption? Some existing products on the market appear "engineered for nonconformity." For example, the LittleMissMatched brand sells collections of mismatched socks sold in packs of three, with the tagline "Nothing matches, but anything goes." In this case, nonconformity is a product feature that clearly denotes the intentionality of the consumer to deviate from the standard practice of wearing paired socks. Marketers of both niche and mainstream brands can capitalize on the growing demand for clothes and accessories that signal intentional nonconformity.
In addition, price might be a valuable driver of perceived intentionality in marketing nonconforming products. Nonconforming brands that are associated with premium prices signal that the nonconforming individual can afford conventional status symbols. This notion is consistent with the trend of wealthy consumers embracing nonconformity by dressing with scruffy clothing but spending like millionaires. The brands and products that these consumers use to deliberately "look poor" are often priced much higher than average fashion brands, such as a $300 pair of Acne jeans or a $200 guayabera shirt. Thus, the relatively high price of these nonconforming product choices manifests as an intentional willingness to deviate from the norm.
Are people who choose to not be different, but rather to fit in with social norms hurting how others perceive them?
No, not at all — conformity is a great and safe strategy. In both professional and non-professional settings, individuals often make a significant effort to learn and adhere to dress codes, etiquette, and other written and unwritten standards of behavior. A vast body of research demonstrates that conformity to rules and social norms improves social acceptance by others and avoids negative sanctions such as social disapproval, ridicule and exclusion. It is by virtue of these benefits linked to conformity that nonconformity can operate as a costly and visible signal. Nonconformity is a riskier strategy, entailing potentially higher gains (for those who dare to try). Observers may infer that a nonconforming individual is in a powerful position that allows her to risk the social costs of nonconformity without fear of losing her place in the social hierarchy.
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