4.5 Optimal Distinctiveness Theory

(Brewer 1991) proposed the model of optimal distinctiveness in which social identity is the reconciliation of opposing needs for assimilation and differentiation from others. Whereas personal identity is the individuated self, social identities are self in social units (i.e., depersonalize), where “I” turns into we. While membership is imposed, social identities are personal choice.

Social identity = optimal distinctiveness = needs for individualization (uniqueness and differentiation) (Snyder and Fromkin (1980), Codel (1984), Lemaine (1974), Maslach (1974), Ziller (1964)) + need for inclusion.

Too much individualization, isolation emerges. too much deindividualization, self-definition is lost.

Tenets: (Brewer 1991, 478)

A1: “Social identification will be strongest for social groups or categories at that level of inclusiveness which resolves the conflict between needs for differentiation of the self and assimilation with others”

A2: “Optimal distinctiveness is independent of the evaluative implications of group membership, although, other things being equal, individuals will prefer positive group identities to negative identities”.

A3: “Distinctiveness of a given social identity is context-specific. It depends on the frame of reference within which possible social identities are defined at a particular time, which can range form participants in a specific social gathering to the entire human race”

A4: “The optimal level of category distinctiveness or inclusiveness is a function of the relative strength (steepness) of the opposing drives for assimilation and differentiation. For any individual, the relative strength of th two needs is determined by cultural norms, individual socialization, and recent experience.”

Even though the previous study argued that either assimilation (communicate social identity) or differentiation (uniqueness motive) could prevail in any consumer decision (Mason, Conrey, and Smith 2007).

(Chan, Berger, and Boven 2012) find that consumers can have both mechanisms satisfied when making a purchase decisions

People conform under the informational or normative influence (Deutsch and Gerard 1955). People also make choices and decision similar to their aspiration groups to signal their desired identities (Berger and Heath 2007; Englis and Solomon 1995).

People also have intricate needs for uniqueness (Lynn and Snyder 2002), since people sometimes experience an emotional reaction when being too similar. Unique motives can be driven by situational factors.

“consumers simultaneously pursue assimilation and differentiation goals on different dimensions of a single choice: they assimilate to their group on one dimension (by conforming on identity signaling attributes such as brand) while differentiating on another dimension(distinguishing themselves on uniqueness attributes such as color). Desires to communicate social identity lead consumers to conform on choice dimensions that are strongly associated with their group, particularly in identity-relevant consumer categories such as clothing. Higher needs for uniqueness lead consumers to differentiate within groups by choosing less popular options among those that are associated with their group” (Chan, Berger, and Boven 2012)

From the optimal distinctiveness theory, people seek to satisfy both the need fo assimilation nd differentiation (Brewer, 1991) “consumption gains symbolic meaning as a marker of group membership” (Chan, Berger, and Boven 2012)

The consumer can simultaneously assimilate (i.e., by conforming to reference groups by choosing attribute that signals group identity such as brand) while differentiating from other in-group members on other choice dimensions such as color to achieve optimally distinct self-concept (Chan, Berger, and Boven 2012).

People diverge from members of other social groups (dissimilar outgroups): when other social groups adopt tastes, people might abandon their current tastes to avoid signaling undesired identities, and costs of misidentification (Berger and Heath 2007)

A framework that is very much related to this theory is the “Geneplore” model by (Finke, Smith, and Ward 1996), where for each new idea, it’s an iterative process of

  • Generation process: combining prior info to create seeds of ideas (i.e., preinventive forms)

  • Exploration process: elaborate on these preinventive forms

Another concept that is closely related to the Geneplore model is the combinatorial nature of creativity (new idea = recombination of prior knowledge)


Another related concept is “beauty in avergeness effect”

This effect is explained by

  1. Evolution: (Grammer and Thornhill 1994) (Langlois and Roggman 1990) (Thornhill and Gangestad 1993)
  2. Fluency: (Landwehr, Labroo, and Herrmann 2011) (Reber 2011) (Winkielman et al. 2006)
  3. Wisdom of the crowds (Surowiecki 2005): Average out a set of dimension cancels out the small errors made by each dimension and the final distribution is closer to optimal [Halberstadt and Rhodes (2003)](Repp 1997)


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