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.
In one study, we found that participants perceived an individual deliberately wearing a red bow tie at a black-tie party in a country club as a higher-status member of the club and a better golf player than a conforming individual wearing a black bow tie. In contrast, for participants in the experiment who were told that wearing the red bow tie was an unintentional deviation from the norm, the positive inferences associated with nonconformity dissipated, and the nonconforming conduct was no longer associated with enhanced status and competence.
To act as a positive signal, nonconformity should be pursued in settings with strong rules, shared standards of appropriate conduct and expectations of social conformity; signaling status and competence through deviance from expectations works against a background of strong established norms. For example, while Zuckerberg has often been known to appear in casual dress at board meetings and interviews, his attire was especially striking in the context of Facebook’s high-stakes meetings for its IPO. Similarly, we found that shop assistants at luxury boutiques in Milan, Italy, perceive a client to be more likely to make a purchase and to be a celebrity if she is wearing gym clothes or a Swatch watch than if she is wearing an elegant dress or a Rolex. We would not expect to detect this effect in the context of ordinary stores or in situations that lack the expected norm of being elegantly dressed.
We use the term “red sneakers effect” to signify the potential upside of nonconforming behaviors. The term was inspired by an experiment in which one of the authors taught a class to business executives at Harvard Business School while wearing nonconforming red Converse sneakers. We found that those executives thought that the professor teaching the class was a well-published scholar and high up in the hierarchy of her department, and that the positive status and competence inferences were particularly strong for executives who themselves owned an unusual pair of shoes. This result suggests that observers who typically engage in nonconforming consumption choices are more sensitive to nonconforming behaviors — and grant more status and competence to signals of nonconformity than do individuals who typically use more mainstream products.
Based on these results, should readers give away their suits and dress shoes and start wearing hoodies and bright red sneakers to work? Maybe not. A wiser path is to try to strike a balance between the benefits of adhering to social norms and the potential, though more risky, upsides of nonconforming practices. Conformity to rules and social norms in both professional and nonprofessional settings tends to generate social acceptance and avoids negative sanctions such as social disapproval, ridicule and exclusion. Signaling through nonconformity comes at the cost of abandoning this comfort zone and the benefits of following the crowd.
Before engaging in daring nonconforming practices, you should assess whether you feel confident that you can afford to give up the social benefits of complying with norms — and tolerate the occasional odd looks that you will receive. For example, while a tenured professor happily volunteered to test our hypotheses on nonconformity by wearing red sneakers while teaching a class, a doctoral student might not dare engage in such conduct. Conformity to organizational norms might be a wise strategy for some, while others may find some surprising benefits in deviant behaviors.
What degree of deviation from the norm is appropriate, and what kind of nonconforming behavior is most likely to elicit positive perceptions? Prior research has identified three main ways in which one can pursue nonconformity. First, one can deviate by being creative and seeking social distinction through original, novel or unique products (for example, wearing a colorful, unusual tie to a formal event). Second, one can establish differentness by disregarding a norm entirely (for example, not wearing a tie to a formal event). Finally, one can engage in behaviors that strongly violate and disrupt existing norms of proper conduct (for example, wearing a tie around one’s head at a formal event). In our studies, we investigate and we recommend pursuing the first two kinds of nonconformity. There is no need to be excessive and strongly violate the norm; a simple deviance from the expected behavioral standard should be sufficient. What’s more, nonconforming behavior can, of course, go beyond dress codes. In one study, we found that selecting a nonconforming PowerPoint presentation style — one that differed from the official template at a business plan competition — can foster positive perceptions of status and competence.
Being perceived as having high status is important, since it can translate into having greater influence on teams and within organizations. Our research, somewhat surprisingly, demonstrates that deviating from a dress code or other norms in appearance may help project an enhanced image to those around us.