Conformity to such rules and social norms is driven by a desire to gain social acceptance and status (see Cialdini and Goldstein 2004) and avoid negative sanctions such as social disapproval, ridicule, and exclusion (Kruglanski and Webster 1991; Levine 1989; Miller and Anderson 1979; Schachter 1951). In the present research, we propose that under certain conditions, nonconforming behaviors can be more beneficial than efforts to conform and can signal higher status and competence to others. We argue that while unintentional violations of normative codes and etiquette can indeed result in negative inferences and attributions, when the deviant behavior appears to be deliberate, it can lead to higher rather than lower status and competence inferences.
Thus begins the article The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity by Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, and Anat Keinan in The Journal Of Consumer Research, June 2014. All block quotes herein are attributed to this piece.
The behavioral sciences have a distinct feature when you analyze their findings. Your gut. Does this feel right? The idea that a small outlier in an outfit can lead to “higher rather than lower status and competence inferences?” To me it does, and here’s why. It conveys self-assuredness, and that is almost universally responded to favorably. It conveys a disregard for another’s opinion, which in forming our assessments of other people is often also responded to favorably. That is an interesting side note – this tic of ours where we tend to like people better when they don’t care if we like them. But that’s another article, probably not for here.
Since nonconformity often has a social cost (e.g., Levine 1989; Schachter 1951), 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. Signaling theory suggests that, for a signal to be effective, it must be costly and observable by others (Feltovich, Harbaugh, and To 2002; Spence 1973; Zahavi and Zahavi 1997).
Yeah, what they said. Perhaps we like you more if you don’t care because we infer that you don’t need to care.
That’s interesting as it pertains to Ivy, which is, in the context of our larger culture, a small eccentricity. These wardrobe outliers come from two places in Ivy (and you can tell in the comments which is which 🙂 ) – those who actually don’t regard your opinion and those who regard it so much that it actually hurts them. But that’s another article, probably not for here.
Thus, unlike low-status group members, high-status members and powerful individuals can afford to deviate from conventional behavior and common expectations without social disapproval (Cartwright 1959; Galinsky et al. 2008; Haslam 2004; Sherif and Sherif 1964). More specifically, in the domain of consumption, high-status individuals may voluntarily downgrade their lifestyle and adopt nonconforming consumption habits, such as material frugality, “omnivoreness” (consuming a broad range of products), and simplicity (Arnould and Thompson 2005; Brooks 1981; Holt 1998; Peterson and Kern 1996; Solomon 1999). For example, high-status individuals may choose to dress informally in business settings. Certain CEOs of major corporations, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have been known to appear without ties or even wearing sweatshirts at interviews and formal gatherings such as the World Economic Forum (Etzioni 2004); some successful entrepreneurs have a habit of attending their companies’ board meetings in casual dress, such as jeans and sneakers (Searcy 2011).
That definitely passes the gut check. “I’m not wearing a tie because I don’t have to.” To which Ivy counters, “I am wearing a tie because I can.” Which is one of the drivers for Ivy’s resurgence, and one of the reasons Ivy declined. This natural back and forth between Red Sneakers and Repp Ties. Oddly enough, the same motivations, right?
Even the point of ignition of Heyday was the result of this back and forth. “I am not wearing socks with penny loafers because I can.” (And because unless your socks are white or cream, it is the only sensible way to wear them.)
The article goes on to discuss the conveyance as well of freedom and autonomy, and of how these things are more highly prized in Western civilizations.
The significance of freedom and autonomy is built into the founding documents of the United States, and the idea that individuals are independent and autonomous is pervasive and generally greatly admired (Dworkin 1988; Markus and Schwartz 2010).
It makes me think. It is true that in other cultures that are more conformist, the wardrobe choices do not vary as widely. In the United States, where freedom and autonomy are core (I am speaking culturally and not politically, please try to refrain from showering politics on this in the comments – this site is not the place for politics), does our heritage somehow incline us toward a new look? Even those of us who dress like our moms and dads don’t dress exactly like our moms and dads but about 12 of those pages are the five studies they conducted to get to the point.
Study 1 examines the responses of shop assistants in luxury boutiques in Milan, Italy, and illustrates that nonconformity, as compared to conformity, leads to inferences of higher status among individuals who are familiar with the environment. Study 2 investigates the effect of nonconformity and the role of the prestige context in a professional setting by testing students’ responses to the dress style of their professors. Study 3 delves into the underlying mechanisms of the red sneakers effect and demonstrates that inferences of status and competence are mediated by the autonomy that participants perceive in the individual’s nonconforming behavior. Moreover, this study shows that the positive inferences dissipate when the nonconforming behavior is perceived as unintentional. Study 4 examines the moderating role of observers’ need for uniqueness and shows that participants with high levels of need for uniqueness tend to attribute more status and competence to nonconforming behaviors as compared to participants with lower needs for uniqueness. Finally, in a follow-up study we increase the validity of our findings by examining nonconformity and need for uniqueness outside the laboratory.
I do this for a living, you don’t, so you probably don’t have the time. Here’s the conclusion: your intuition is right. Small idiosyncrasies DO convey autonomy, freedom, status, and competence, and that we are culturally bent towards that reaction.
Which is Ivy’s sweet spot. On the street today a shirt and tie are the minority, but not the remarkable minority. A button down collar is the minority of the minority, and in that place becomes just the right idiosyncrasy.
But there is more to the art of the outfit outlier than this article discusses. First, the outlier works better when it speaks to the wearer’s overall sense of choices and style, as opposed to just dressing against the grain. I started wearing yellow glasses because I met a designer who wore them. They worked so well for him because I knew (1) that he knew tortoise shell was right for the outfit but didn’t care and (2) that he probably also had tortoise shell somewhere.
Second, the outlier must be an accent. That does not mean that you get to wear a wacky tie every day as long as you are wearing a WOCBD. Sometimes the accent is something that is inherent. A different hairstyle. An earring (ahem). The outlier cannot be the driver.
And third, you cannot wear the outlier because you are hurt and feel like you don’t fit in. All of life goes back to the playground, and we all get it. You got picked last, somebody called you a name, whatever. And you are having a hard time unringing that bell. Your wardrobe (and the comments section) is not the place for you to push back. Neither place is gonna fix your problem.
I think that to do the outfit outlier right, you have to own it. It has to be authentic to you. And that is an easy read for others to make.
My sense is that as Ivy continues to bloom again, the style itself becomes the outlier.