Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Individuality within the Group: Testing the Optimal Distinctiveness Principle through Brand Consumption

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Individuality within the Group: Testing the Optimal Distinctiveness Principle through Brand Consumption

Article excerpt

The need to experience belonging to a group and the need to feel like a differentiated individual are two distinct and fundamental motives that shape human behavior (for a review, Baumeister & Leary, 1995). According to social identity tradition, personal identity represents a heightened sense of individuated self, resulting from a process of interpersonal differentiation, whereas social identity represents a collective sense of self, resulting from in-group assimilation and uniformity (Hogg, 2001; Tajfel & Turner, 1979, 1986). When the social self becomes salient, the significance of personal self diminishes, and vice versa.

On the surface, the distinction of personal and social identities might imply an irreconcilable interplay between need for assimilation and need for differentiation. However, in Brewer's optimal distinctiveness theory (ODT; 1991, 1993, 2003, 2007) she suggests the satisfaction of need between different levels of self-identity is a much more complex phenomenon than this interplay. According to ODT, assimilation and differentiation coexist as two opposing forces. On one hand, people need assimilation, that is, social inclusion, to alleviate social isolation, and on the other hand, they need differentiation to preserve a sense of individuated self. Thus, social identities serve as a compromise to cope with these two opposing drives. To satisfy both needs simultaneously, people could identify with a social group that is inclusive enough to alleviate social isolation and, at the same time, exclusive enough to provide a sense of distinctiveness.

In the original conceptualization of the theory, only the motivational underpinnings for the collective level of self were considered. Later proponents of ODT extended the optimality principle of assimilation and differentiation to other levels of self-representation (see e.g., Brewer & Gardner, 1996; Brewer & Roccas, 2001; Hornsey & Jetten, 2004; Leonardelli, Pickett, & Brewer, 2010; Slotter, Duffy, & Gardner, 2014). Analogous to the opposing needs proposed at the collective level, the needs for individuality and assimilation may also operate at the level of personal self. At the individual level, people reconcile the tension between the need for interpersonal similarity and the need for individual uniqueness (see e.g., Brewer & Gardner, 1996; Brewer & Roccas, 2001; Pickett, Silver, & Brewer, 2002). Further, how the needs are satisfied at one level influences the activation of the corresponding needs at another level. For instance, evidence suggests that, for members who constitute the minority of an in-group, their social identity is distinct enough to satisfy their need for distinctiveness and, therefore, their pursuit of differentiation at the personal level diminishes. In contrast, for members who constitute the majority of an in-group, their social identity is too inclusive and, as a result, they engage in interpersonal comparisons to satisfy their need for uniqueness (Brewer & Pickett, 1999; Brewer & Weber, 1994; Pickett et al., 2002). In other words, social identity is fostered only to the extent of satisfying a person's need for individuality. In the end, different levels of self should work simultaneously to ensure that the internal balance between the two needs is achieved (Hornsey & Jetten, 2004).

The integrated view of how the two internal drives operate across different identity levels could advance understanding of the dynamic of the individual's pursuit of optimal distinctiveness. However, to date, the focus in the majority of scholarly works has been primarily on the level of the collective self. Some scholars have noted the asymmetry in the literature and called for more extensive examination of the personal self within the group setting (e.g., Kampmeier & Simon, 2001).

Evidently, in the past, an abundant amount of scholarly work in the social identity tradition has been devoted to examining the role that social identity plays in the tug-of-war between the need for assimilation and for differentiation, whereas the function of interpersonal differentiation in the group setting has not received much systematic attention (Hornsey & Hogg, 1999; Hornsey & Jetten, 2004). …

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