Early in life, we all learned that there are tangible benefits from following social rules. As a result, across organizations and industries, people make a significant effort to learn and adhere to dress codes, etiquette, and other written and unwritten codes of behavior. For example, we tend to dress up for job interviews, dates, and business meetings. If one is provided, we tend to use the presentation template provided by our company, or use the language and acronyms favored to the organization so that we can better fit in.
Yet, as it turns out, deviating from the accepted dress code or social norms may have surprising status benefits. Imagine you find yourself walking down Via Monte Napoleone, in Milan, Italy, an elegant street famous for its ready-to-wear fashion and jewelry shops. Being familiar with the context, you dressed up for the occasion, hoping to hit a few shops. During your walk, you see a woman, perhaps 35 years old, entering one of the luxury boutiques. Far from being dressed to the nines, she is wearing gym clothes and a jean jacket. What would you think of her, and how likely do you think she is to buy something at the store?
If you are familiar with the dress code for luxury stores on the Via Monte Napoleone, you may assign her greater status than if she had been wearing a dress and a fur coat. In recent research, my Harvard Business School colleagues Silvia Bellezza and Anat Keinan and I found that under certain conditions, nonconforming behaviors, such as not following the expected dress code or the appropriate professional conduct in a given context, can signal higher status. In our research, for example, shop assistants working in boutiques selling luxury brands in Milan assigned greater status to the woman wearing gym clothes and a jean jacket rather than to the woman properly dressed. In another study, students assigned higher status to a 45-year-old professor working at a top-tier university when he was described as wearing a t-shirt and had a beard than to a clean-shaven one wearing a tie. When the deviant behavior appears to be deliberate, it can lead to higher status inferences rather than lower ones.
Why is this the case? Nonconformity often has a social cost, so people assume people breaking the rules enjoy a powerful enough position that they are not concerned about the costs. So, the keynote speaker at a well-known event who is clearly wearing mis-matched socks, the senior executive who shows up at work in his or her jeans, or even the person who randomly walks up to strangers in restaurants and eats food off their plate may be judged by others as having greater status than if they were to conform to the norms of appropriate conduct. Though different, in all these cases the individuals are breaking accepted social rules. And, by doing so deliberately, they are likely to gain some status points in the eyes of others.
The deviant behavior does not necessarily need to be about not following proper dress code. In another of our studies, we focused on unconventional behavior during a business context. We asked participants to evaluate candidates in the MIT $100K Competition, one of the nation’s premier business plan competitions. The contest brings together a network of resources (venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, mentors, and more than $350K in cash and prizes) to help MIT students and researchers fund new ventures. Our study participants read about John, a 22-year-old MIT student who has already passed the first round of the contest and is about to participate in the second round. As he prepares slides for the presentation of his business plan, John is deciding between using either the official MIT background or a less conventional background of his choice. Most other contest entrants are using the official MIT background for their slides. Eventually, John decides to use his own layout. Our participants believed that John had greater status than an equivalent peer who decided to use the MIT official layout.
How can you make use of this research? I asked myself this question as well. Being a professor, it is certainly beneficial to be respected by students — after all, it is more likely for them to remember what professors teach if they consider them to be influencial and to have status in their respective fields. So, to enhance my status in their eyes, I often dress down in nonconforming ways. For instance, as part of the research I discussed earlier, I once taught a 90-minute executive education class at Harvard Business School wearing a pair of (nonconforming) red Converse sneakers...and a suit. Wearing red shoes was an odd choice — as it was clear by the look I received by my colleagues on my way to class.
But the students looked at me quite differently, not being as familiar with me as my colleagues are. At the end of the class, the executive students completed a short survey in which they assessed my professional status and competence. For instance, they were asked to indicate how high my status was within the school and how likely my research was to be featured in the Harvard Business Review. The students also answered questions that allowed us to determine whether they had a desire to stand out. It turned out that participants with a desire to stand out were even more sensitive to nonconforming behaviors and granted greater status and competence to signals of nonconformity (i.e., my red shoes!) than individuals with a low desire to stand out.
Heightening our status in the eyes of others is clearly an important goal, as it can lead us to be more influential members of our groups and organizations, or even more desirable dates. Aware of this fact, we often devote great effort to enhancing our status in the eyes of those around us, when in fact, just being willing to deviate from a dress code or other norm of appropriate conduct may do the trick. So, as Dr. Seuss asks, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.