Optimal Distinctiveness Theory

Optimal Distinctiveness Theory Definition

“Everyone needs to belong.” “Everyone needs to be unique.” That both of these statements are true is the basis for Marilynn Brewer’s theory of optimal distinctiveness, which helps explain why people join social groups and become so attached to the social categories they are part of. Optimal distinctiveness theory is about social identity—how people come to define themselves in terms of their social group memberships.

Optimal Distinctiveness TheoryAccording to the optimal distinctiveness model, social identities derive from a fundamental tension between two competing social needs—the need for inclusion and a countervailing need for uniqueness and individuation. People seek social inclusion to alleviate or avoid the isolation, vulnerability, or stigmatization that may arise from being highly individuated. Researchers studying the effects of tokenism and solo status have generally found that individuals are both uncomfortable and cognitively disadvantaged in situations in which they feel too dissimilar from others, or too much like outsiders. On the other hand, too much similarity or excessive deindividuation provides no basis for self-definition, and hence, individuals are uncomfortable in situations in which they lack distinctiveness. Being just a number in a large, undifferentiated mass of people is just as unpleasant as being too alone.

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Because of these opposing social needs, social identities are selected to achieve a balance between needs for inclusion and for differentiation in a given social context. Optimal identities are those that satisfy the need for inclusion within one’s own group and simultaneously serve the need for differentiation through distinctions between one’s own group and other groups. In effect, optimal social identities involve shared distinctiveness. (Think of adolescents’ trends in clothes and hairstyles; all teenagers are anxious to be as much like others of their age group as possible, while differentiating themselves from the older generation.) To satisfy both needs, individuals will select group identities that are inclusive enough that they have a sense of being part of a larger collective but exclusive enough that they provide some basis for distinctiveness from others.

Optimal Distinctiveness Theory Importance and Implications

Optimal distinctiveness theory has direct implications for self-concept at the individual level and for inter-group relations at the group level. If individuals are motivated to sustain identification with optimally distinct social groups, then the self-concept should be adapted to fit the normative requirements of such group memberships. Achieving optimal social identities should be associated with a secure and stable self-concept in which one’s own characteristics are congruent with being a good and typical group member. Conversely, if optimal identity is challenged or threatened, the individual should react to restore congruence between the self-concept and the group representation. Optimal identity can be restored either by adjusting individual self-concept to be more consistent with the group norms, or by shifting social identification to a group that is more congruent with the self.

Self-stereotyping is one mechanism for matching the self-concept to characteristics that are distinctively representative of particular group memberships. People stereotype themselves and others in terms of salient social categorizations, and this stereotyping leads to an enhanced perceptual similarity between self and one’s own group members and an enhanced contrast between one’s own group and other groups. Consistent with the assumptions of optimal distinctiveness theory, research has found that members of distinctive minority groups exhibit more self-stereotyping than do members of large majority groups. In addition, people tend to self-stereotype more when the distinctiveness of their group has been challenged.

Optimal identities (belonging to distinctive groups) are also important for achieving and maintaining positive self-worth. Group identity may play a particularly important role in enhancing self-worth and subjective well-being for individuals who have stigmatizing characteristics or belong to disadvantaged social categories. In effect, some of the potential negative effects of belonging to a social minority may be offset by the identity value of secure inclusion in a distinctive social group. Results of survey research have revealed a positive relationship between strength of ethnic identity and self-worth among minority group members, and some experimental studies have demonstrated that self-esteem can be enhanced by being classified in a distinctive, minority social category.

Finally, because distinctive group identities are so important to one’s sense of self, people are very motivated to maintain group boundaries—to protect the distinctiveness of their groups by enhancing differences with other groups and limiting membership to “people like us.” Being restrictive and excluding others from the group may serve an important function for group members. In effect, exclusion may be one way that individuals are able to enhance their own feelings of group inclusion. Those who are the least secure in their membership status (e.g., new members of a group or marginalized members) are sometimes the most likely to adhere to the group’s standards and discriminate against members of other groups. For example, new pledges to a sorority house are often more likely than the more senior sorority members to wear clothing with sorority letters and to attend functions held by the sorority. Ironically, these noncentral group members may be even more likely than those who truly embody the group attributes to notice and punish others for violating the norms and standards of the group. When given the power, marginal group members may also be more discriminating in determining who should belong in the group and who should be excluded—for example, when it comes time to decide on the next group of new pledges.

In experimental studies, it has been demonstrated that when individuals are made to feel that they are marginal (atypical) group members, they become more stringent about requirements for group membership and more likely to exclude strangers from their group. Similarly, when group identity is under threat  (e.g., the fear of being absorbed or assimilated into some larger group), members tend to become more exclusionary. Thus, the upside of social identity processes is that secure group identity enhances well-being and motivates positive social behavior. The downside is that insecure group identity motivates exclusion, intolerance, and possibly intergroup hatred.


  • Brewer, M. B. (1991). The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17, 475-482.