The Unexpected Benefits of Being Unexpected

Presented by Columbia Business School


Bending the rules can pay off when it comes to raising others’ esteem.

As human beings, we face tremendous social pressure to conform. While culturally we lionize those who break away from the herd, psychological experiments since the 1950s have shown how readily we cave when faced with the firm opposition of our social peers.

columbia-business-schoolThe instinct to conform appears to be hardwired. Researchers have found evidence of social conformity in a range of species, from monkeys and humpback whales to cockroaches. Scientists believe that conformity can convey strong evolutionary benefits amongst social animals, like human beings. As a result, behavior outside the norms can face strong social sanction.

But sometimes breaking the rules can boost your social standing. In a series of studies, researchers from Columbia Business School and Harvard Business School found that luxury store salespeople attributed higher status and dollar value to casually dressed shoppers, and executives saw unconventionally dressed individuals as more competent. The researchers call this the “red sneaker effect.”

Silvia Bellezza, an assistant professor in the marketing division at Columbia Business School and lead author on the study, explains that social capital is like currency, and those who intentionally break the rules appear to be able to afford it.

The research also sheds light on how status symbols are changing in a world where more consumers can afford luxury goods. As once-exclusive brands have become accessible to a wider swathe of the population, their effectiveness as signals of elite status has diminished.

For brands looking to breakout in the current environment, unconventionality may offer an opportunity. In their paper, Bellezza et al. point anecdotally to high-end consumers’ increasing penchant for “crazy socks.” The authors also indicate the proliferation of high-priced low-end staples, as in the booming luxury athleisure segment, that allow consumers to eschew the traditional symbols of status while still signaling they have the money to acquire them.

In order to be effective, status signals must be both visible and costly, Bellezza explains, a fact which, when combined with the human proclivity towards mimicry, may help to explain the longterm instability of markers of prestige.

Silvia Bellezza is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Columbia Business School. Her research focuses on consumer behavior and symbolic consumption–how consumers use products and brands to express who they are and signal status.

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