As part of a paper on consumer individuality, researchers observed fashion at Princeton University.
Jonah Berger and Cindy Chan of Wharton and Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado, Boulder took pictures of students from a preppy/jocky eating club and a hipster/alternative eating club, and then blurred out the faces. These pictures were shown to participants, who were asked to identify what club students belonged to and how unique their clothing was.
The results were fascinating.
First, participants were able to identify what club students belonged to with 85 per cent accuracy.
Second, it was just as easy to identify what club the “unique” students belonged to as the “non-unique” students. In other words there were multiple levels of social coding, where students could appear unique while still conforming to a stereotypical mould.
From the paper [PDF]:
How do consumers reconcile conflicting motives for social group identification and individual uniqueness? Four studies demonstrate that consumers simultaneously pursue assimilation and differentiation goals on different dimensions of a single choice: they assimilate to their group on one dimension (by conforming on identitysignaling attributes such as brand) while differentiating on another dimension (distinguishing themselves on uniqueness attributes such as colour). Desires to communicate social identity lead consumers to conform on choice dimensions that are strongly associated with their group, particularly in identity-relevant consumer categories such as clothing. Higher needs for uniqueness lead consumers to differentiate within groups by choosing less popular options among those that are associated with their group. By examining both between- and within-group levels of comparison and using multidimensional decisions, this research provides insight into how multiple identity motives jointly influence consumer choice.
And here are a few of the students:
The researchers would not share with us which eating clubs were in the study. Any Princeton grads want to have a guess?
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