Your research includes work on Optimal Distinctiveness Theory (‘ODT’). How do you define it?
Human beings are characterized by two basic, opposing needs: a need for inclusion—a desire to ‘belong’ that motivates our immersion in social groups; and a need for differentiation from others. An ‘optimally distinctive’ identity is one that satisfies the need for inclusion within an in-group (i.e. feeling similar and belonging with a group) as well as the need for distinctiveness between that in-group and various out-groups, so as to distinguish one’s group from others.
These needs have their origin in our evolutionary past, where security and survival depended on inclusion in stable, clearly-differentiated social groups. As a consequence, our sense of personal security is maximized in the context of ‘in-group’ membership and clear in-group–out-group distinctions. What we have found is that when you're a member of an optimally-distinctive group, you tend to trust members of your in-group significantly more than members of other groups. You also develop a better perception of yourself when you are in a setting with people you feel connected to.
You have found that optimal distinctiveness is ‘context specific’. How so?
A given context affects both the activation of needs and the relative distinctiveness of specific social categories. For example, in the context of a psychology conference, group identity as a psychologist is inclusive, but is not optimally distinctive. In this context, shared identity as a social psychologist would be both sufficiently inclusive and differentiating. However, at a university-wide faculty meeting, group identity as a psychologist would be both inclusive and distinctive, and any sub-disciplinary group membership would be excessively differentiating.
Even within a given context, optimality is not necessarily fixed. For example, when an individual first joins a new social group, his inclusion needs may be particularly salient. If so, he would be concerned that the in-group is sufficiently inclusive and broadly defined so that he clearly falls within the group boundaries. Over time, however, once inclusion has been established, differentiation motives may be more strongly activated, and he will become more concerned that the in-group boundaries are defined so that the in-group can be clearly differentiated within its broader social context.
How do these needs vary by individual?
Asking how strong an individual’s need for inclusion is, is like asking how hungry she is. Like any need or drive, inclusion and differentiation motives vary as a function of current levels of satiation or deprivation. However, individuals may differ in how sensitive they are to changes in levels of inclusiveness: just as some people start feeling ravenous an hour or two after eating, while others don’t even notice they haven’t eaten all day, so some people will react strongly to even a slight loss of inclusiveness, whereas others will be more tolerant of a range of in-group inclusiveness.
How do ‘prototypes’ fit into the picture?
One way that individuals can satisfy their need for in-group inclusion is to alter themselves to be more consistent with a ‘group prototype’. This can be achieved in a variety of ways. For example, group members can change their behaviour or appearance or adopt the beliefs and attitudes that are typical of the group. Prototypicality can also be achieved by perceiving the traits that are stereotypical of the group as being descriptive of the self. This process has been described in the research literature as ‘self-stereotyping’.
Can you provide an example of optimal distinctiveness?
The one that comes to mind immediately is sports fans. Whether you’re a fan of hockey, basketball or football, the team you choose to support really distinguishes you from other people, and we revel in both the inclusion and the differentiation aspects of this. In the realm of business, profitable companies that represent a relatively small market share of an industry can also be optimally distinctive. Annie’s Mac and Cheese is an example. Annie’s makes organic macaroni and cheese that is sold at Whole Foods. While not everyone is familiar with it, its distinctiveness adds to the notion of value: it stands out among those who consume it, because it is perceived to be different and potentially more reliable than a ‘mass’ brand like Kraft Dinner. To expand on this idea, if an organization is presenting itself as an ‘industry minority’ that is optimally distinctive, employees might be more inspired to work harder on the company’s behalf, because within a smaller in-group, each piece of work becomes more meaningful.
What are the implications of Optimal Distinctiveness Theory for dealing with societal issues like discrimination?
[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]