Optimal Distinctiveness Theory

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Optimal distinctiveness theory is a theory in social psychology proposed by Brewer (1991) which makes the assertion that individuals strive to attain an optimal balance of assimilation and distinction within social groups and situations. That is to say, when people feel very similar to others, they seek out some way to be different. When they feel different, they try to be more similar. The theory argues that individuals continuously take corrective actions to maintain an optimal compromise between the need to be similar and the need to be different. One who feels too different from his or her in-group will make an effort to find commonalities between themselves and other members of the in-group by making in-group comparisons. Alternatively, one who feels too similar to a group will try to identify themselves as distinct from this in-group. This person will make comparisons between groups in an effort to prove to themselves they are considerably different from other members of this group which they inhabit. When one feels sufficiently differentiated and assimilated, they reach a contented state of equilibrium (Brewer, 1991).


Basic Tenets of Optimal Distinctiveness Theory (Brewer 1991)

1. Social identification will be strongest for social groups or categories at that level of inclusiveness which resolves the conflict between needs for differentiation of the self and assimilation with others. To test this, Lau (1989) examined whether African-Americans in various different situations identified themselves as feeling close to African-Americans in general. The test aimed to find out if a black person would identify most strongly with his or her racial group if he or she lives in a predominantly black area, a predominantly white area, or an area where the numbers of blacks and whites was close to equal. The findings of Lau’s study showed group identity to be strongest among African-Americans who lived in areas in which 40-70% of the population was also African-American. In other words, living in an area like this created the optimal level of both distinctiveness and inclusiveness. The African-Americans were able to identify themselves as somewhat similar, when they compared themselves with the other African-Americans, but also somewhat different when compared with the whites.

2. Optimal distinctiveness is independent of the evaluative implications of group membership, although, all other factors being equal, individuals will prefer positive group identities to negative identities.

There is a significant amount of evidence which asserts that once the self has become attached to a social group or category, positive affect and evaluations associated with the self-concept are automatically transferred to the group as a whole (Farnham, Greenwald, & Banaji, 1999; Otten & Moskowitz, 2000; Otten & Wentura, 1999)

3. Distinctiveness of a given social identity is specific to its context. It depends on the frame of reference within which possible social identities are defined at a particular time, which can range from participants in a specific social gathering to the whole human race.

When a particular social identity is made salient to an individual, this individual is likely to think of themselves as having characteristics that are representative of that social category. For example, if an African-American woman has recently had her femininity made salient to her, she will think more of herself as a woman than as an African-American at that particular time (Hamilton, Dugan, & Trolier, 1985; Hamilton & Gifford, 1976).

4. The optimal level of category distinctiveness or inclusiveness is a function of the relative strength of the opposing drives for assimilation and differentiation. For any given individual, the relative strength of these two needs is determined by cultural norms, individual socialization, and recent experiences. Research has shown that retrieval cues which activate the private self-representation generate self-cognitions that are very different from the self-cognitions that are retrieved when the collective self representation is activated. In the first case, interpersonal social comparisons form the basis for self-evaluation, while in the other case, intergroup social comparisons form the basis for self-evaluation. This shift from personal to social identity represents a shift from self-interest to group interest as the basic motivation for one’s behavior. All of this is hinged upon cultural norms (the extent to which one’s culture or society emphasizes distinctiveness and assimilation), individual socialization (the extent to which an individual desires to be distinct and similar, respectively), and recent experiences (the extent to which certain groups of with which the individual identifies has been made salient to them recently) (Brewer, 1991).

Development of Optimal Distinctiveness Theory and Other Theories

Optimal Distinctiveness Theory came about as an extension of Social Identity theory, a model that focuses on and examines in-group bias and favoritism (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Social Identity theory makes the assertion that individuals have multiple selves, or multiple social identities, that interact with others on different, but necessary levels. Social Identity for any individual is created through membership in groups, and membership in this group is enough to induce favoritism towards the in-group at the expense of the out-group.

Others took the ideas of Social Identity theory further to create their own theories. One of the most notable of these theories is Subjective Uncertainty Reduction theory, which states that group identity functions as a way for individuals to categorize themselves with memberships to their specific groups. This theory suggests that the motive for doing this is to reduce uncertainty and to achieve meaning for oneself in social settings. When developing her theory of optimal distinctiveness, Brewer (1991) took issue with this theory because uncertainty reduction does not by itself account for why people habitually seek group identification as an essential part of their lives.

Another important theory in the development of Optimal Distinctiveness theory, which was developed long before Social Identity theory, was the idea of ethnocentrism put forth by Sumner (1906). One of Sumner’s main points was that individuals will show favoritism and loyalty to in-groups, and feel contempt and antagonism towards out-groups. Brewer argued that favoritism towards the in-group was independent of hostility towards out-groups. Evidence has shown that categorization into groups leads to enhanced in-group ratings in the absence of decreased out-group ratings (Brewer, 1979). Another study (Mummendey, 1992) about the allocation of positive resources and the distribution of negative costs found that individuals are willing to differentially benefit the in-group compared to out-groups but are reluctant to harm out-groups more directly.

Brewer made extensions off of all these theories to come up with Optimal Distinctiveness theory as an explanation for why people want to be a part of groups and how they simultaneously retain their feelings of individuality while being part of this group.

Evidence of Optimal Distinctiveness Theory

A number of experimental studies have supported Optimal Distinctiveness theory. Activation of the need for assimilation or the need for differentiation increases the importance of distinctive group memberships (Pickett, Silver & Brewer, 2002). A threat to inclusion enhances self-stereotyping on group-characteristic traits (Brewer & Pickett, 1999; Pickett, Bonner, & Coleman, 2002). A threat to group distinctiveness motivates overexclusion (Pickett, 1999) as well as intergroup differentiation (Jetten, Spears & Manstead, 1998; Roccas & Schwarz, 1993). Also, assignment to distinctive minority group categories engages greater group identification and self-stereotyping than does membership in large, inclusive majority groups (Brewer & Weber, 1994; Leonardelli & Brewer, 2001; Simon & Hamilton, 1994). There is a great deal of experimental data which suggests the validity of Optimal Distinctiveness theory’s claim that individuals in groups strive for both inclusion and distinctiveness.


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19. Mummendey, A., Simon, B., Dietze, C., Grunert., M., Haeger, G., Kessler, S., et al. (1992). Categorization is not enough: Intergroup discrimination in negative outcome allocations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28, 125–144.

20. Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways. New York: Ginn.

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