The Surprising Benefits of Nonconformity

New research finds that under certain circumstances, people wearing unconventional attire are perceived as having higher status and greater competence.

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Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, captured the attention of the media when he wore a hooded sweatshirt when meeting with investors before his company’s initial public offering. While his appearance before professionally dressed bankers and investors left some observers thinking the young entrepreneur’s nonconforming dress style was a sign of disrespect, it signaled confidence to others.

When and why does nonconformity in appearance lead others to make positive rather than negative inferences about an individual? We examined this question and identified conditions under which observers attribute enhanced status and competence to a person whose appearance does not conform to the norm for a particular setting. Our studies explored various environments and populations, from business executives to shop assistants at high-end boutiques in Milan, Italy. (Detailed findings from our research will be published in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Consumer Research.)

Our studies found that nonconformity leads to positive inferences of status and competence when it is associated with deliberateness and intentionality. In other words, observers attribute heightened status and competence to a nonconforming individual when they believe he or she is aware of an accepted, established norm and is able to conform to it, but instead deliberately decides not to. In Zuckerberg’s case, for example, many observers saw his decision to wear a hoodie on his tour of the most important Wall Street banks to be a deliberate choice.

In contrast, when observers perceive a nonconforming behavior as unintentional, it does not result in enhanced perceptions of status and competence. When a nonconforming behavior appears to be dictated by lack of means, lack of better alternatives or lack of awareness of the dress code, it will not lead to positive inferences from others. Thus, to benefit from deviance from the norm, we should make sure that others perceive our nonconforming practices to be deliberate and intentional choices. From a psychological standpoint, intentional deviance from a norm can project heightened status and competence by signaling that one has the autonomy to act according to one’s own inclinations. Autonomous individuals tend to act independently and behave according to their own rules.


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Comments (3)
William Hartwig
Nonconformity is always a risk. That particular risk is subject to your motives and to the particular context in which you exercise it. What purpose does it serve? Lower risk exists when your nonconformist behavior, dress, etc., are simply about you. People can typically pick up on authenticity. Are you the same inside as you are outside? A little sandpaper in the marketplace would do us good!
Agustinus Lawandy
In my experience intentional nonconformity can be a way of getting people to talk. People talk easily when there is something striking about us and they don't have to find a reason to talk with us, it's right there in front of them!  This can be a good strategy in a way, I expect people to be more friendly and curious when I decided to wear something weird or eye catching, they will seem to think it is funny and in many cases their guards is lowered. Although I have known this, perceiving nonconformity as a means to elevate status in a social setting was something unthinkable to me, and counter-intuitive since I have always thought the opposite happened. But it actually makes sense if I think a leader as someone who is different and play by one's own rules.
Muhammad Saeed Babar
Non-conformity is acceptable only when it emanates from an already accepted source. In the cited example of Facebook CEO, it is not surprising because of his personal status as well as company status. As a general statement, non-conformity is rejected out rightly.