25 January 2013

You Need to Be Distinctive and to Belong - Need for Uniqueness

Every person has two apparently contradictory needs: (1) to fit in a social group and (2) to be distinctive and special. These needs are, in my view, deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. First, we need to be part of a social group, the evolutionary explanation being that as part of a group we have more chances of fulfilling the evolutionary macro-goals of survival and successful reproduction. I have addressed this issue in Doing What Others Do – SocialInfluences of Peers

Second, we need to be distinctive because we have to compete with others for limited resources and for social relationships such as attracting friends and potential mates. I have addressed this issue in Keep Up With the Others - Social Competition.  

The evolutionary explanation for these needs is not the only one. It is possible that we have these needs simply because we need to feel comfortable with ourselves. I personally prefer the evolutionary explanation.

As mentioned in the beginning the need to fit in a social group and the need to be distinctive are apparently in conflict one with another. Despite this, these two needs are not antagonistic, meaning that a compromise can be reached. The compromise result is that people have a need to feel themselves as moderately distinctive. Both extreme similarity and extreme dissimilarity to others are unpleasant and discomforting. Moreover, people who see themselves as moderately distinct from others experience general positive affect (good mood).

When we are made aware that we are similar to others, we tend to reaffirm our distinctiveness by conforming less, expressing less popular attitudes and placing more value on scarce experiences and messages.

In formal terms the need to be (feel) distinctive is called “need for uniqueness” and is a personality trait. Everybody has this need for uniqueness; however there are individual differences in the degree to which people feel this need. Psychology literature has identified two scales to measure need for uniqueness. In brief, the first scale developed was the Need For Uniqueness scale (NU). This scale focused mainly on manifestations of (somehow) risky public behavior. Since this measure was suboptimal, another scale was developed, namely the Self-attributed need for uniqueness (SANU).

For marketing the NU is relevant because it predicts consumers’ selection of observable products. The SANU is better at predicting the desire for scarce products, customized products and pursuing uniqueness through consumption.

Distinctiveness can be expressed through many means. Next the most relevant ways of “showing” uniqueness are presented.

First, people can express distinctiveness and at the same time satisfy the need of belonging to a social group by being (or identifying themselves as) part of a small somehow exclusive social group. I call this the “better minority” effect. In essence an individual likes to belong to a special small social group that s(he) perceives as being better than the majority or general population. The smaller the “better minority” the more its members identify themselves with the group and satisfy their need for uniqueness. Moreover, when people are made aware of their lack of distinctiveness they tend to identify themselves with “better minority” groups.

Second, people can express distinctiveness through consumption. For instance, people can show uniqueness by buying and possessing scarce products. In fact people with high scores on need for uniqueness (measured using the SANU scale) as compared with people with low scores on need for uniqueness tend to prefer more scarce (rare) products such as “limited edition” over common ones.   

Another way in which people can express distinctiveness through consumption is by favoring highly innovative products before others do. In other words, people who are high on need for uniqueness tend to adopt new and innovative products earlier than people with low need for uniqueness. To put things a bit differently, the early adopters of highly innovative products are people who have a high need to feel and show that they are different from the large majority.   

Remaining in the area of consumption, people can express distinctiveness through customization (personalization) of products. People who score high on need for uniqueness (measured using the SANU scale) show a higher preference for personalized and customized products than people who have low scores. To put things a bit differently, the entire industry of customizing mobile phones, clothes, cars etc. is driven by Need for uniqueness.

Another mean of showing uniqueness through consumption is the preference for less popular products. People with high levels of need for uniqueness prefer less popular brands, colors and products over their more popular alternatives. However, this effect is valid only for items that are visible suggesting that the preference for less popular products is used to show “public uniqueness” and not “private uniqueness”.  

I have devoted much attention to expressing uniqueness through consumption, but this does not mean that each and every person expresses uniqueness through these means. In fact many people express their distinctiveness through experiences. Let’s imagine a beer chat between two couples. One couple describes in detail the new mobile phone they bought and show them extensively. This couple expresses distinctiveness through consumption.  The other couple tells a story about their latest holiday in an exotic destination where they did scuba diving. This couple expresses distinctiveness through experiences.

For the ones interested more in expressing uniqueness through consumption, I recommend checking out the following two measures: “Desire for unique consumer products (DUCP)” and “Consumer need for uniqueness”.  They are considered to be more useful in applied marketing research that the general measures of need for uniqueness.

Before ending this post, I would like to remind you that each and every person has the two needs of feeling distinctive and at the same time belong to a social group. There are, however, personal differences in the extent to which we feel the need of being distinctive and this is called need for uniqueness and it can be measured. This need is “activated” when people are made aware of their lack of distinctiveness. Moreover, the need for uniqueness is manifested more when the information on lack of distinctiveness is consciously detected as opposed to unconscious detection.   

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This post is documented from: Lynn Michael, and Snyder C.R. “Uniqueness seeking” chapter 28 in Handbook of Positive Psychology (source)

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