Magazine article Psychology Today


Magazine article Psychology Today


Article excerpt


Latin Name: Opposium totalis

Notable Characteristics: Defines the phrase "goes against the grain." Never hesitates to inject a contrary viewpoint, whether at a department meeting or Grandma's Thanksgiving dinner table. Habitual sender of email forwards promoting offbeat philosophies. If you say right, this head-butter goes left.

Songs & Calls: "You've got it backwards." "Society is nothing but a deluded swarm of lenimings." "I know I'm right."

ANGELA Whitaker* can scarcely remember a time when she wasn't allergic to conventional wisdom. The 23-year-old consultant shuns all makeup, never does her hair, and turned down Western medical care for her chronic digestive problems. After she met the love of her life, she tied the knot inaHalloween costume instead of a wedding dress, and she stunned her family by announcing that she and her new husband planned to invite other romantic partners into their relationship. "I'm most comfortable around people who buck society's expectations," she says. "I refer to them affectionately as weirdos."

Most people are groomed from early childhood to conform to social norms, but a select few seem uniquely resistant. The wisdom of the crowd repels them like a charged magnet. Unlike run-ofthe-mill rule breakers, true contrarians don't just flout established norms- they also have highly developed maverick philosophies of their own. Whitaker, for instance, is active in the polyamory community and well-versed in the world of alternative medical treatments.

What drives contrarians to go against the grain so resolutely? Some are skeptics who have been burned by conventional ideas, such as the child of divorce who swears off marriage for life, and some use defiance to get attention. But many are looking to establish their own identities as distinct from a larger group. "Often, people will turn to minority opinions to bolster their sense of who they are as individuals," saysUniversityof Chicago psychologist Kimberly Rios.

Contrarians also tend to have an unusually strong sense of certainty that emboldens them to air their unpopular opinions. At Australia's University of Queensland, where researchers quizzed subjects about controversial topics, those who had strongmoral convictions about their stance were more likely to risk expressing a divergent view. Many contrarians are later-born children, who are less likely than firstborns to uphold the status quo- sometimes because an older sibling has already claimed the conventional achiever role in the family. IQ is also a contributing factor: The smarter people are, the less they feel compelled to conform to social expectations.

Because of their unconventional outlook, some contrarians make important creative contributions to society; take former drifter Steve Jobs, who revolutionized computing by rejecting the status quo. "Creative ideas usually get a weak reception, at least initially," says psychologist Robert Sternberg, provost of Oklahoma State University. "But contrarians give their lives meaning by attempting to change the way things are to the way they think they should be."

Running counter to established norms can sometimes backfire, however, when it comes to navigating interpersonal situations. Contrarians- low in agreeableness on the Big Five personality scale- are not concerned about social graces. …

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