Optimal distinctiveness theory


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Overview

Optimal distinctiveness theory demonstrates that individuals prefer to join groups, teams, or collectives with particular properties (Brewer, 1991, 1993). In particular, individuals need to fulfill two competing needs: the need to belong or assimilate and the need to feel distinct and unique. Specific characteristics of groups or teams can fulfill these two needs. These fundamental needs, for example, are fulfilled when individuals identify with smaller groups: they feel they belong to this collective but nevertheless feel distinct from the majority of individuals in their environment.

Evidence of needs

The need to belong and the need to feel distinct has been established over many years. A variety of studies show that individuals feel the need to belong--either by forming solid, trusting relationships or by identifying themselves with a broader collective. This need to belong is especially pronounced when individuals feel threatened, highlighting the evolutionary advantage of this motive (e.g., Elder & Clipp, 1988; Rofe, 1984).

In addition, many studies have established the need to feel distinct, even in more collectivist cultures (e.g., Sedikides, Gaertner, & Toguchi, 2003; see Snyder & Fromkin, 1980). As reviewed by Lynn and Snyder (2002), individuals experience anxiety when they are informed their characteristics are not unique, but overlap with the traits and attributes of someone else.

More recent studies have also corroborated this need to feel unique. Simsek and Yalincetin (2010) developed a measure that can be administered to assess whether or not this need to feel unique is fulfilled. The scale comprises five items such as "I feel that some of my characteristics are completely unique to me" and "As people get to know me more, they begin to recognize some of my special features". Cronbach's alpha was approximately .81 and confirmatory factor analysis demonstrated almost perfect fit, with a root mean square error of less than .001. Test retest reliability over a two week period was .80.

More importantly, Simsek and Yalincetin (2010) showed this feeling of uniqueness was positively associated with measures of wellbeing. Specifically, when individuals felt unique, they were more likely to experience hope in their life as well as report resilience. Furthermore, even after controlling personality as gauged by the five factor model, this feeling of uniqueness was positively associated with self esteem, life satisfaction, as well as the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness (see self determination theory). Finally, this feeling of uniqueness was inversely related to depression and anxiety.

Admittedly, individuals do not strive to be unique on all characteristics. They prefer to be unique, for example, on positive rather than negative, attributes. Similarly, they prefer to be unique on abilities and not opinions (see Walsh & Smith, 2007).

Means to fulfill these needs

Hornsey and Jetten (2004) delineated a series of other strategies that individuals can apply to feel they belong as well as feel they are distinct. First, individuals can modify their perception of themselves or their group; they can, for example, conceptualize themselves as aligning to group norms more than other members, called the PIP effect Codol, 1975, 1984). Alternatively, individuals can exploit some veridical properties of the group; to illustrate, they can assume a unique role in their team, which fulfils both the need to feel distinct and their need to belong.

Some of these strategies or processes enable individuals to feel distinct from other members of their team, such as assuming a unique role. Other strategies or processes enable individuals to feel they belong to a distinct or unique group.

Consumption choices

Optimal distinctiveness theory can explain the products and services that customers choose. That is, to fulfill the need to assimilate or belong, customers will tend to choose products or services in which one attribute epitomizes their identity, such as a respected brand name. Yet, to fulfill the need to be unique and differentiate themselves, customers may choose products or services that are unusual on another attribute, such as color (Chan, Berger, & Van Boven, 2012). In short, people differentiate themselves on attributes that do not signal their identity.

In one study, conducted by Chan, Berger, and Van Boven (2012), members of two clubs at a university were photographed in their usual attire. Furthermore, the extent to which they like to be unique was assessed. Finally, other members of these clubs, or another club, observed these photographs, after the faces had been blurred to obscure their identity. They were asked to indicate to which of the two clubs these photographed individuals belonged. In addition, after they were told to which club the individuals belonged, they were asked to specify how unique their clothing appeared relative to other members.

Participants correctly identified the club to which people belonged in 85% of instances. The clothes of members in one club tended to be sporty. The clothes of members in another club were more hippy in style. Furthermore, the extent to which the clothes seemed unique, from the perspective of observers, correlated to the degree to which the person who wore these clothes was motivated to be unique.

In the second study, participants were asked to identify a group to which they belong, such as a sporting club or student council, as well as the extent to which they feel motivated to be associated with this group. Next, they received four alternatives from 10 categories, such as cars or sunglasses. For each set of alternatives, two of the options corresponded to one brand, such as BMW, and the other options corresponded to another brand, such as Mercedes. Participants were then told to imagine the majority of people preferred one of the two models of one brand, such as a silver BMW but not the white BMW. Finally, participants indicated which option they would choose as well as their need for uniqueness.

If participants were especially motivated to be associated with this group, they were more likely to choose the brand that other members prefer, such as BMW. Yet, if they also reported a need for uniqueness, participants tended to choose the option, such as the color, that was selected by fewer members.

The third study was similar, except need for uniqueness was manipulated. That is, half the participants observed arrays of shapes, such as one circle embedded within a row of 8 squares. Their task was to count the number of circles and squares. Exposure to this task--a task that has been shown to prime need for uniqueness--increased the likelihood that participants chose an attribute, but not a brand, that diverged from members of their group.

The final study showed that which attribute individuals utilize to assimilate and differentiate themselves depends on the context. To illustrate, some participants received information to indicate the specific product, instead of the brand, differentiates groups. These participants, if strongly associated with their group, tended to choose the product, instead of the brand, that other members of the group prefer.

Properties of groups that fulfill these competing needs

Size of groups

Many studies highlight that individuals identify more closer to smaller, rather than larger. groups. In a seminal study, published by Brewer and Weber (1994), participants were assigned to groups, depending on some contrived trait. The two groups putatively differed in size. Individuals who were supposedly assigned to a small group were more inclined to compare these two collectives, demonstrating they felt a sense of identity with their team. In contrast, individuals who were supposedly assigned to a large groups were more inclined to compare themselves to other participants, demonstrating limited identity with their team. Similarly, Brewer and Schneider (1990) showed that individuals tend to prioritize the interests of the collective over the interests of themselves when these groups are relatively small rather than large.

In another study, conducted by Leonardelli and Brewer (2001), participants were informed, in the aftermath of a contrived procedure, they belong to a specific group. Some individuals were informed the group represents 20 to 25% of the population. Other individuals were informed the group represents 75 to 80% of the population. Finally, participants were asked to estimate the extent to which they identify with groups. Participants identified more with groups that were small rather than large. This finding has been replicated in many studies (e.g., Brewer, Manzi, & Shaw, 1993).

Subsequently, Brewer and Pickett (1999) showed that individuals do indeed identify with smaller, rather than larger, groups as a means to pursue their need to feel distinct. In particular, in their studies, when participants were primed to feel similar to other individuals, their preference to join smaller groups was amplified.

The amplified identification with smaller, rather than larger, groups has also been observed outside the laboratory. Employees, for example, tend to identify more with their workgroup than with their organization (e.g., Van Knippenberg & Van Schie, 2000) Similarly, in a study reported by Abrams (1994), individuals were asked to specify the extent to which they feel committed to their political party. In general, individuals were likely to feel committed to minority, rather than majority, parties. That is, the smaller parties fulfilled the need to feel distinct and the need to belong concurrently.

Nevertheless, to fulfill both the to feel distinct and the need to belong concurrently, individuals might prefer teams that are moderate rather than small or large in size. This hypothesis, however, was not supported by Van Hiel and Mercielde (2002).

Identification with subgroups

When individuals do identify themselves with a large groups, such as a dominating political party or religion, they can nevertheless fulfill their need to feel distinct. Hornsey and Jetten (2004), indeed, identified eight characteristics, processes, or strategies that facilitate the reconciliation of these two needs-that is, the need to belong and the need to feel distinct.

Apart from joining a smaller group, individuals can identify themselves with a subgroup of a larger collective. They could, for example, identify themselves with a faction of a larger political party. These subgroups might be defined formally, such as departments in large organizations, or informally, such as unofficial cliques.

Research has shown that individuals do indeed identify themselves with subgroups when they sense that a larger collective has not fulfilled their need to feel distinct and unique. Participants in one study, conducted by Hornsey and Hogg (1999), were asked to what extent their need to feel distinct is obstructed when they identify themselves with their university. They answered questions such as whether or not the university feels too large to contribute and change the institution. Individuals who reported this need to feel distinct was not fulfilled later showed more bias against students in another discipline. This finding implies these participants were more inclined to identify themselves with their discipline, not their university, as a means to feel distinct.

Identification with a unique group

According to Hornsey and Jetten (2004), individuals may also attempt to join a group that departs appreciably from the majority of other collectives-an exclusive, unique, creative, or revolutionary team, for example. Such groups clearly accommodate the need to belong and the need to feel distinct.

Individuals sometimes identify with exclusive groups of high status, such as Mensa or business clubs. Nevertheless, sometimes individuals identify with groups that are not high in status but diverge from the majority of collectives.

To illustrate, White and Langer (1999) showed that Jewish participants were more likely to demonstrate biases against congregations that were similar to their own group but more secular. This finding implies that such participants like to conceptualize their own group as divergent from society in general-and thus feel threatened by collectives that are similar to themselves but not as distinct.

Interestingly, some of the most revolutionary groups, such as punks in the 1970s, seemed to conform to each other more than do other collectives (Hornsey & Jetten, 2004). Likewise, teenagers who feel the need to be distinct are more inclined to conform to the norms of revolutionary collectives (see Hornsey & Jetten, 2004).

Perceptual amplification of unique qualities of the group

When individuals do not belong to a unique group, they can nevertheless focus their attention on the distinct features of this collective to fulfill their need to feel exclusive. In other words, the cognitive processes of individuals can magnify the unique features of their group. Social identity theory already assumes that individuals attempt to amplify the differences between their groups and rival collectives. Optimal distinctiveness theory, however, recognizes that such amplification of differences is primarily intended to ensure that individuals feel distinct see Hornsey & Jetten, 2004).

Pickett, Bonner, and Coleman (2002), for example, showed that individuals who experience a powerful need to feel distinct are more inclined to perceive themselves as similar to the stereotypes or norms of their group. Presumably, these individuals attempt to perceive everyone in their group as similar-as a means to differentiate themselves from other collectives and thus feel distinct (for related findings, see Kampmeier & Simon, 2001).

Even the perceived size of a group can be biased to fulfill the need to feel distinct. In one study, when the need to feel included rather than distinct was primed experimentally, participants overestimated the size of their group (Pickett, Silver, & Brewer, 2002).

Differentiation of roles within groups

Similar to identification with subgroups, individuals can fulfill specific roles in a group to feel distinct from other members. These individuals, however, fulfill their need to belong not by identifying themselves with a subgroup, but by contributing their unique qualities to the broader collective (Hornsey & Jetten, 2004). Bettencourt and Sheldon (2001) maintained that social roles enable individuals to fulfill their need for autonomy and self determination, while experience a sense of belonging. Interestingly, when individuals feel their role demanded characteristics that are integral to their conceptualization of themselves-which Bettencourt and Sheldon (2001) defined as an index of autonomy-they experienced a heightened sense of connection to their group and greater subjective wellbeing.

Indeed, Vignoles, Chryssochoou, and Breakwell (2000) showed that a sense of feeling distinct as a consequence of fulfilling a unique social role tends to coincide with positive affective states. Feeling distinct as a consequence of a unique individual characteristics-or as a consequence of a sense of separation from other individuals-did not coincide with positive emotions.

Usually, unique roles, in contrast to identification with subgroups, also enable individuals to feel entirely distinct from all other members. Identification with subgroups does not enable individuals to feel distinct from other members of this smaller unit (Hornsey & Jetten, 2004).

Identification with a group that champions individual differences

According to Hornsey and Jetten (2004), individuals can also identify with groups that embrace, rather than reject, members to engage in behaviors that contradict norms and convention. That is, if the group champions individualism, members can exhibit their unique qualities while fulfilling collective norms. Hence, both their need to feel distinct and their need to belong are satisfied. Members can engage in behaviors that even depart from the inclinations of other individuals in their group.

Indeed, Jetten, Postmes, and McAuliffe (2002) showed that individuals who identified with groups that embrace individuality do indeed to demonstrate more unique behaviors. Specifically, individuals who strongly, rather than modestly, identify themselves with North America-a culture that embraces individualism-were more inclined to act unconventionally. This pattern was also observed in a laboratory study (Jetten, Postmes, & McAuliffe, 2002; for similar findings, see McAuliffe, Jetten, Hornsey, and Hogg, 2003).

Furthermore, research has shown that individuals can feel more autonomous when they feel connected to a group-at least when they feel connected to a group that embraces individuality. Sheldon and Bettencourt (2002), for example, showed that university students felt more positively about a group on campus when this collective encouraged personal autonomy, manifested as endorsements to statements like "To what extent does group membership allow you to express your authentic self".

Perception of loyalty but not conformity

To fulfill their need to belong and their need to feel distinct, individuals can attempt to conceptualize themselves as loyal to the group but not conforming to their norms (Hornsey & Jetten, 2004). That is, individuals can differentiate these constructs-loyalty and conformity-to feel connected but distinct. That is, they can maintain their loyalty without relinquishing their personal interests and inclinations.

The PIP effect

The primus inter pares or PIP effect-which describes individuals who conceptualize themselves as fulfilling group norms to a greater extent than do other members-can also accommodate the need to belong and the need to feel distinct (Codol, 1975, 1984). Indeed, Codol (1975, 1984) showed that many individuals do indeed demonstrate this tendency.

Friendships

Friendships can obviously foster a sense of belonging. But, as Demir, Simsek, and Procsal (2013) showed, friendships can arguably instill a sense of uniqueness as well, ultimately translating into happiness. First, in this study, participants completed a measure that gauges the six qualities of their best friendship: companionship, help, intimacy, reliable alliance, emotional security, and self-validation. A typical item is "My best friend compliments me when I do something well". Second, these participants completed a measure that assesses the degree to which they feel unique, epitomized by items like "As people get to know me more, they begin to recognize my special features". Finally, they completed various measures of happiness. A sense of uniqueness mediated the association between quality of friendships and happiness. These results were observed in a variety of communities.

Presumably, individuals become more attuned to their unique qualities when they interact with a close friend. They may, for example, feel more willing to express and thus develop, rather than inhibit and impede, their distinct perspectives and features.

Relationships

Optimal distinctiveness theory can also explain the dynamics in romantic relationships. That is, consistent with optimal distinctiveness theory, people seek both affiliation and distinctiveness within the context of relationships. When individuals feel similar to their partner, and hence their need to affiliate is fulfilled, they will strive to be distinct--perhaps engaging in tasks alone. In contrast, when individuals feel different to their partner, and hence their need to feel distinct is fulfilled, they will strive to affiliate--by engaging in tasks together. These possibilities were proposed and validated by Slotter, Duffy, and Gardner (2014).

In one study, participants wrote about a time in which they felt very similar or different to their partner. Next, participants indicated the degree to which they would like to spend time with their partner. If they felt similar to their partner, and hence their need to affiliate but not be distinct was fulfilled, they desired less time with their partner. In contrast, if they felt dissimilar to their partners, and hence their need to feel distinct but not to affiliate was satisfied, they desired more time with their partner. Other studies replicated and extended this pattern of observations. These findings persisted even after satisfaction with the relationship was controlled.

Complications to optimal distinctiveness theory

The effect of threat on optimal distinctiveness

Badea, Jetten, Czukor, and Askevis-Leherpeux (2010), however, did show that individuals prefer groups that are moderate in size, partly consistent with optimal distinctiveness, unless these participants felt this collective was threatened. In one study, for example, participants completed a task that was, supposedly, intended to determine whether individuals orient their attention to specific details or global patterns.

Next, the need for differentiation--that is, to feel unique--and the need for assimilation--that is, to feel they belong--was manipulated. Specifically, to ensure their need for differentiation was not fulfilled, some participants were informed they share the same cognitive style as 75% of the population. Alternatively, to ensure their need for assimilation was not fulfilled, some participants were informed they share the same cognitive style as only 2% of the population. Finally, to ensure both needs are fulfilled, some participants were informed they share the same cognitive style as 25% of the population. Then, participants were asked to indicate the degree to which they identify with this category.

In general, participants were more likely to identify with the group that was moderate in size--25% of the population. This size fulfilled both the need for differentiation and assimilation, consistent with optimal distinctiveness theory. However, if participants had been informed that individuals who demonstrate this cognitive style are deficient on other tasks, representing a threat, a different pattern emerged. Specifically, participants became more inclined to identify with the smallest group (Badea, Jetten, Czukor, & Askevis-Leherpeux, 2010).

Several explanations could reconcile this pattern of findings. According to Badea, Jetten, Czukor, and Askevis-Leherpeux (2010), under threat, optimal distinctiveness theory might no longer apply. That is, if the group of individuals is threatened, personal identity might not be as salient, and hence the need for differentiation diminishes. Instead, individuals might attempt to identify with a group that responds most effectively to threats. Smaller groups might be easier to mobilize. Hence, individuals might identify more closely with smaller groups.

Alternatively perhaps, although not proposed by Badea, Jetten, Czukor, and Askevis-Leherpeux (2010), when individuals are told their group is inadequate, they might become aware their group comprises subsets. Hence, individuals allocated to a group that is moderate in size might instead identify with this subset and not the group as a whole.

Opinions versus tastes

According to optimal distinctiveness theory, individuals always like to be distinct, but only to a moderate extent. However, as Spears, Ellemers, and Doosje (2009) showed, individuals like to be very distinct on some characteristics but not at all distinct on other characteristics. In particular, they like their tastes to be distinct but their opinions not to be distinct.

Spears, Ellemers, and Doosje (2009) reasoned that opinions are usually assumed to be either correct or incorrect. Individuals obviously want their opinions to be correct. Individuals feel that opinions that are espoused by the majority of people are more likely to be correct---or at least perceived as correct. They will, therefore, prefer their opinions are not distinct.

In contrast, tastes are not assumed to be correct or incorrect. Instead, tastes provide an opportunity for people to define their characteristics. Therefore, to define themselves, individuals do not want their tastes to be shared by everyone. They want their tastes, thus, to be more distinct than their opinions.

To assess these possibilities, in one study, reported by Spears, Ellemers, and Doosje (2009), university students assigned to one condition were told the survey they will complete assesses political opinions. They were informed that, in the political arena, some people feel that economic considerations are more important than environmental considerations, whereas other people adopt the opposite stance. In the other condition, participants were told the survey they will complete assesses music tastes. They were informed that some people prefer rock music and related genres whereas other people prefer dance music. Next, the extent to which individuals identify themselves with a particular group--such as advocates of environmental considerations--was assessed. Then, participants were told that either 70% or 30% of other students shared their preference. Finally, participants indicated whether they would prefer their group to be smaller or larger.

The results supported the hypotheses. Participants preferred that a majority of people share their opinion about politics. For example, if they preferred that politics focuses on environmental considerations, but were told that only 30% of students espouse this position, they generally wanted this group to be larger. In contrast, participants preferred that a minority of people share their taste in music. To illustrate, if they preferred rick music, but were told that 70% of students also like this genre, they generally wanted this group to be smaller. Identification with these groups did not differ between opinions and tastes.

A subsequent study showed that merely describing the issue as an opinion or taste was sufficient to generate the same pattern of observations (Spears, Ellemers, & Doosje, 2009). That is, some participants were told the study relates to investigating opinions. Other participants were told the study relates to investigating tastes. They were then asked whether they prefer state or commercial TV stations. If the study putatively revolved around opinions, participants preferred that more people share their attitudes towards the TV stations. If the study putatively revolved around tastes, participants preferred that fewer people share their attitudes towards the TV stations.

Environmental cues that affect whether belonging or uniqueness is prioritized

According to Zhu and Argo (2013), cues in the environment affect whether individuals prioritize belonging or uniqueness. In particular, when the seats in a room are arranged in a circular or semicircular pattern, people are more likely to prioritize a sense of belonging over uniqueness. When the seats in a room are arranged in a square or angular pattern, people are more likely to prioritize uniqueness instead.

To illustrate, in one study, seven chairs were arranged either in a straight line, besides one chair that was 90 degrees from these seats, or in a circle. Next, they read advertisements that either emphasized relationships (e.g., "Make your family and friends a priority") or uniqueness (e.g., "Celebrate and rejoice in how special and unique you alone are"). Then, participants rated the extent to which the advertisements are appealing, interesting, and so forth. If the chairs were arranged in a circle, individuals preferred the advertisements that alluded to family and friends. If the chairs were arranged with angles, individuals preferred the advertisements that alluded to their unique qualities.

Subsequent studies replicated this finding. For example, the same pattern of findings was observed when a circular arrangement of chairs was compared to a square arrangement--controlling whether the shape was open or closed. Likewise, the same pattern of findings was observed when other measures of belongingness and uniqueness needs were assessed: If the arrangement was circular, participants preferred advertisements that were apparently endorsed by 90% of other people; if the arrangement was angular, participants preferred advertisements that were apparently endorsed by only 10% of other people.

Arguably, angles prime the notion of sharp differences, highlighting that people are separate from one another. Consequently, individuals emphasize the needs of themselves over the needs of a broader group. In contrast, circular shapes may prime feelings of harmony.

The type and properties of subgroups

According to optimal distinctiveness theory, individuals often form subgroups to reconcile the need to belong with the need to feel distinct. Yet, as Carton and Cummings (2013) show, the type and properties of these subgroups greatly affect performance. For example, larger workgroups, departments, or organizations are more effective if they comprise more than two subgroups of the same size, each corresponding to a distinct business unit or supervised by a different person. Likewise, these larger workgroups, departments, or organizations are more effective if demographic subgroups are unequal in size.

This study examined 326 teams of a multinational company that processes foods. To evaluate performance, panels of senior executives rated the degree to which each team generated outcomes that align to the goals of this company. The role of these teams was to improve operations, develop products, and serve customers. The judges assessed customer reports, spread sheets, and other information that reflected the performance of these teams on these facets. In addition, various properties of the teams were collated, such as the gender and age of members, whether or not all members belonged to the same business unit and whether or not members reported to the same supervisor.

In general, teams were more effective if members belonged to three, rather than fewer, business units or reported to three, rather than fewer, supervisors--especially if each subgroup comprised the same number of people. In contrast, teams were more effective if the majority of members were similar in age and sex.

Presumably, individuals from distinct business units, or with different supervisors, access disparate knowledge. These individuals, if blended into one team, can thus contribute distinct knowledge. This diversity of knowledge enhances innovation and problem solving, because many distinct perspectives can be applied. Nevertheless, this benefit dissipates if one source of knowledge prevails. These benefits do not apply to subgroups that differ in identity, such as gender, rather than knowledge.

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Created by Dr Simon Moss on 05/01/2009

Related objectives:
- Social identity and self categorization - Self construal - Social role theory - Self expansion model - Social dominance theory - Optimal distinctiveness theory - Subjective uncertainty reduction theory - Structural adaptation theory - Socioemotional selectivity theory - Social cognitive conceptions of moral identity - System justification theory - Resource-based perspectives of the firm - Intergroup helping as status relations model - Social exchange theory - The rational choice theory of terrorism - Costly signaling theory - The social identity theory of leadership - Motivated identity construction theory -


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