Uniqueness involves a person’s distinctiveness in relation to other people. Such uniqueness can reflect actual behaviors or a person’s perceptions regarding his or her differences. People can vary in the degree to which they want such distinctiveness, with some being highly desirous of specialness (high need for uniqueness) and others who do not want to stand out from other people (low need for uniqueness).
Uniqueness seeking probably is a modern phenomenon because people centuries ago were concerned about fundamental survival issues and did not have the time to attend to their uniqueness. Toward the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, however, people were more assured of meeting their basic survival needs, and accordingly, they turned to issues involving the maintenance of their self-concepts. Thus, in increasingly technological and highly populated societies, people became more focused on matters pertaining to their uniqueness.
Although there were 17th- and 18th-century books and stories about people who were worried about preserving their distinctiveness (known under the German term doppelganger), prior to the mid-1970s, the shared view among social psychologists was that people did not want to be special. This latter anti-uniqueness view stemmed from both conformity research, showing that people often wanted to go along with the crowd, and interpersonal attraction research, which showed that people wanted to be as similar as possible to others. Likewise, during this pre-1970s period, clinical psychologists and sociologists viewed any differences that people displayed as being abnormal, deviant, or pathological.
Moving into the 1970s and the early 1980s, however, social psychological researchers began to perform robust experimental manipulations that were aimed at studying how people would react when they were given feedback indicating that they were extremely similar to other people. Contrary to the pre-1970s findings, these new research findings showed that people did not like such extremely high similarity and, indeed, wanted to feel some sense of specialness in relation to other people. The terms individuation, need for uniqueness, and uniqueness theory were applied to this latter research. Later, it was called optimal distinctiveness theory.
Evidence for Uniqueness
Studies on need for uniqueness basically involved giving self-report tests that asked research participants to describe themselves on a variety of dimensions and thereafter delivering feedback to these people about how similar they were to other people who supposedly had taken the same tests. (In actuality, this similarity feedback was bogus, but the research participants believed it.) Before their purported meetings with these other people, various measures were taken of the research participants’ emotional and behavioral reactions. Results showed that when people were given feedback that they were very highly similar, as compared to moderately similar, to others who had taken the same tests, these former people reported feeling more negative emotions and engaging in behaviors to reestablish their specialness. For example, the behaviors aimed at showing their uniqueness included the endorsing of unusual self-descriptive words, conforming less, expressing less popular ideas, producing more creative uses for objects, and valuing scarce objects. On this last point, need for uniqueness has been used to explain why people are attracted to products that are only available to a few persons (e.g., “Hurry on down while the supply lasts!”), as well as why changing product styles each year makes those products very appealing to people.
Self-report scales also were developed and validated to measure the degree to which a person has a low, moderate, or high need for uniqueness. In other words, some people are especially desirous of displaying distinctive attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and so forth, whereas other people do not want such distinctiveness. These need-for-uniqueness scales have been used successfully to predict the propensity of people to seek unusual activities and scarce commodities.
The societally acceptable dimensions on which people can manifest their distinctiveness have been called uniqueness attributes, and research shows that people use the following attributes to display their specialness: (a) attitudes, (b) beliefs, (c) personal appearance (including clothing), (d) friends and mates, (e) personality characteristics, (f) group membership, (g) signatures, (h) performances, and (i) consumer products. Furthermore, people display their uniqueness on those dimensions that are important to their self-concepts. For example, a person for whom personal appearance is crucial will dress in a manner that shows him or her to be different from other people.
The research shows that people generally want to establish a sense of specialness when they are given feedback that they are highly similar to others. Moreover, most people use societally acceptable uniqueness attributes to show some sense of specialness relative to other people. Finally, self-report scales also reveal that some individuals are extremely desirous of displaying their uniqueness.
Importance and Implications of Uniqueness
Uniqueness seeking allows people to attain satisfaction about their specialness. Also, uniqueness seeking may increase the diversity in society. This happens because the people with high needs for uniqueness seek different goals and interests, and in so doing, they open up new arenas in which other people can succeed. In pursuing their uniqueness, people also are likely to produce new skills, knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes that may be helpful in solving problems. The acknowledgment and pursuit of uniqueness foster greater societal toleration and appreciation of differences among people.
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