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.