What makes people differentiate themselves from others? We discuss the ways people do it, and the hidden psychological reason why people have a need for standing out in a crowd.
Over the years of my existence, I have observed that there is always a small minority of people who have a divergent view. A lot of people who try to be the one to stand out in the crowd. Those who want to make decisions that differentiate them from others. And at times, they even go out of their way to prove, either to themselves or to others that they are standing out in a crowd. These people want to execute their will, even if it’s not very rewarding as compared to the majority.
What makes these people want to stand out from the crowd so bad? What motivations drive their need for differentiation, and what purpose is this process fulfilling? To begin with, let’s call these people divergent for the sake of argument.
Is It Wrong to Want to Stand Out?
One feels different by making unique decisions or creating a distinctive ‘persona’. The fact that the need for standing out is in our nature makes it actually a very common thing to do. It’s neither good nor bad to want to differentiate yourself. In fact, there are even some benefits of standing out. I’ll come back to that later. However, first let’s go over some examples of how people like to stand out from the crowd.
How People Like to Differentiate Themselves from the Rest
Years ago when I used to work in high-end bicycle marketing, I met the Director of Global Sales from Bianchi. He told me something, and I may be paraphrasing here, along the lines of, “Cycling brands like Trek, Specialized and Cannondale are the world’s topmost and premium ones. However, there are cyclists who don’t want to own one of those. There are those who like Bianchi. This may be a small population, but it’s there.”
1. The Brand Affinity
We can observe a similar example in cars. There are great car brands like BMW and Mercedes, which provide great value for their price-tag. However, there always some buyers who will choose an Alfa Romeo above them, even though it may be more expensive than and not as great as the other two brands.
I myself admit that I am guilty of having made such decisions. Many years ago, I purchased a camera from a lesser known brand called Pentax over Nikon & Canon, which are much more accepted, and better in all ways. If you look around you, you’ll start noticing such brands in every category that appeal to those who want to just try out a brand that not everyone else owns, just because.
In marketing, we have a term called Brand Affinity, in which the marketers try to make customers believe in the brand values. Some brands’ marketing strategy is to appeal to those who like to be different. They make the costumers connect with it and feel that they have a real relationship with it. For example, Apple’s whole brand is built with the tagline, “Think different,” although on the contrary, owning an iPhone became synonymous with the opposite of thinking different in the 2010s.
2. The Fashion Choices
Other than the brand choices, people who have the need for standing out also like to differentiate themselves in many other ways. In fact, people love finding ideas on how to stand out and be different from others. Fashion choices and social media personas are two of the top ways people like to showcase or assert their so-called uniqueness. You always find some students in a classroom who want to project themselves differently, creating a whole unique persona, like goths or tomboys.
Hobbies and pastimes are other common ways that make you stand out from the crowd. Every decade there are a slew of trendy hobbies people take up in hopes of seeming ‘cool’. You’ll find the likes of these filling up resumes, social media bios and dating profiles. Guitar became the trendy thing back in my college days. And then there was mountaineering; and pottery for the more indoorsy people. And in the last decade, it was taking up a side-hustle like joining a startup or creating an app.
An extreme example of the divergents could be flat-earthers. We don’t need much of a research to know that 99.99% of people on earth know and believe the scientific fact that the earth is round. However, despite all the undeniable scientific evidence, there do exist certain people, and even a society, who believe the earth is flat.
5. Social Media
Social media gives us the opportunity to create our unique online personas, which may even be different than how we are in real life. Many people use this ability as the easiest way to stand out in a crowd, or at least believe that they are. It gives one a sense of power to stand out. One of the most common examples I have found is the popularity of the ‘I’m not like other girls’ memes that are all over the internet right now.
If you haven’t seen them, these memes usually draw comparisons between other girls, who do things the feminine, skinny or glam way, and the sharer of the meme, who is usually portrayed as the girl who loves junk food, or dresses in a makeup-free, not-trying-hard-to-impress way.
However, this brings us to the negative part of the need to stand out from others. This need to differentiate oneself is sometimes fulfilled in a way that makes the divergent assert their superiority in a toxic way, which puts the others down.
Why People Have the Need for Standing Out?
Stand out or blend in? Everyone has a different instinct. So why is it that there are always some people who want to have a conflicting point of view? What is the insatiable desire for conflict that make some of us choose the less rational option? What is the rationale behind this irrationality?
It was once quoted in the movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, “You see hidden within the unconscious, lies an insatiable desire for conflict. So you’re not fighting me at all, as much as you’re fighting the human condition.” Turns out, it’s not just some people, it’s actually wired into us as humans to want to feel special.
Reasons to Stand Out
1. The Feeling of Being in Control
I believe there are some people who don’t like the idea that they are not in control of their decision. They have the need to prove to themselves, and to others, that they don’t make a decision by following others. They do it just to remind themselves that it’s their own action that leads to a consequence.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky write in his book Notes from the Underground, “I believe this is so and I’m prepared to vouch for it, because it seems to me that the meaning of man’s life consists in proving to himself every minute that he’s a man and not a piano key. And man will keep proving it and paying for it with his own skin; he will turn into a troglodyte if need be.”
From the looks of it, it seems that humans are willing to do any stupid thing, just to prove to themselves that they are in control. So what is it that make some of us do such irrational, stupid, dangerous things? Some may say they feel alive. It is actually an exciting thing to know that we are in control, it gives us a sense of purpose.
2. To Create a Unique Identity
Everyone likes to feel special, to see themselves stand out of the noise. Making unique choices helps people feel unique, too. Fulfilling their need for standing out makes them feel that they’re not just a part of a crowd.
3. To Feel Superior
Making unique choices takes courage, especially if it makes you question the logic behind that decision. But having this courage makes people feel good. Knowing that they’re different than others gives people a sense of superiority, as they feel they are courageous enough to own their unpopular opinions.
People follow leaders, while leaders don’t follow anyone – they have to make their own decisions and create their own paths. Making unique decisions makes people feel like leaders. So a divergent sometimes believes that their decision is right, and that other people will follow their path.
5. The Need for Self-Esteem
I believe humans have a need stand out. For some, it may be more than the others at times. Let me explain who are the ones with this greater need.
Abraham Maslow proposed a theory in psychology called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This theory ranks various human needs on the basis of how motivated humans are to fulfill them. According to this theory, we feel motivated to fulfill the needs at the top of the pyramid once the ones at the bottom are fulfilled. At the bottom of the pyramid are our most basic physiological human needs like food, water, sleep, etc., followed by safety and then, love and belonging.
Towards the top of the pyramid are the needs for self-esteem, followed finally, by self-actualization. It means that for humans who already feel their more basic needs like friendship and family are fulfilled, go on to wish for confidence, self-respect and respect from others.
Maslow noted two versions of the esteem – the first being admiration and respect by others. And the second being the higher version – internal confidence or self-esteem. According to me, being a divergent fulfills both the versions of this human need.
The divergent’s behavior (need for standing out) does not belong in the crowd or majority. When someone decides to leave comfortable space and move outside the comfort-zone makes them feel more confident. It helps them gain self-respect, or at least the sense of it.
However, a confident person is unlikely to take an irrational decision. A less rational decision is unlikely going to get him/her any respect from themselves. Therefore, a divergent decision taken solely to stand out from the crowd doesn’t fulfill the higher version of esteem. Instead, taking such a decision makes them get everybody’s attention. They are actually hoping to portray themselves as courageous to gain the admiration of the others.
Does Standing Out Make You Better or a Wannabe?
So my theory is that the divergents are in search of either admiration, self-respect, or sometimes self-fulfillment. But not all of these.
If the divergent is making their unique decisions solely to fulfill their need for standing out in a crowd, they are doing it to feel a sense of superiority. They justify their irrational decisions through their belief that it’s better to stand out than fit in.
However and rarely, these decisions are taken logically, after analyzing pros and cons. In that case, the divergent is a nonconformist; someone whose few decisions will be different than those taken by other people, and some will be the same. This is because they’re not making decisions just to stand out, but because they’re doing what feels right.
The nonconformist is that who is in search for the highest human need. The need for self actualization – free of biases and prejudices. These are confident people who have acquired love and self-esteem. They are now able to realize their capability to think freely, independent of others’ opinion of themselves.
Do you feel you have the need for standing out? Do you constantly look for signs you stand out from the crowd? If so, next time, try to observe this: are you making your divergent decisions solely to stand out? Or are you making them logically – regardless of whether they are divergent or not?
Co-Author: Shilpa Ahuja
Abhishek Sareen is a marketing professional with over 16 years of experience. He started his career as a management consultant and currently works in international business. He has set up businesses like Track & Trail, BrooksBicycles.com and created consumer brands like Montra, Machcity and Roadeo. He’s is a passionate cyclist and participated in several endurance competitive events like MTB Himalaya. His interests are in behavioral psychology, economics and chess. He is a graduate in Computer Science and an MBA in Marketing. He completed his executive education from IIM-A in 2016 focusing on business strategy.