Optimal Distinctiveness Theory


After writing about the above image in the previous post, I read an article from the Atlantic about Guinness World Records: “Why Break a World Record?” by Cari Romm. This article introduced me to the term Optimal Distinctiveness Theory.

Stephen Garcia, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies competition. “People are always trying to find a way to make themselves seem like they’re at the top,” he said. In psychology, the “optimal distinctiveness” theory argues that people walk through their lives on a tightrope between belonging and individuality; the goal is to stand out, but not so much that they lose affiliation in the groups that help to form their identity.

“There’s a need for uniqueness, and I think people cling to that in different ways,” he said. When everyone is searching for their own brand of special, “they might see themselves as being number one in a particular dimension, and they might discount other things.”

Information on Psychwiki.com elaborates on this theory in greater detail.

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.

It seems to me that there’s a lot of potential for using this description as a set of rules for generative art, where objects are generated that are striving to be different until they become too different and then they try to become more the same.

In the Atlantic article there was also reference to the three needs theory.

Human motivation can be sliced and diced into any number of categories—intrinsic versus extrinsic is one example—but one of the more well-known classifications is the “three needs” theory, which breaks motivation into, well, three needs: for achievement, for power, and for belonging.

I’m not sure how I could turn that into a set of rules for generative art but I wanted to keep a note of it. There is more information online about this theory that is also referred to as Need Theory. This is a simplification of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as summarised in the diagram below.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs by J. Finkelstein (I created this work using Inkscape.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by J. Finkelstein (I created this work using Inkscape.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The term optimal distinctiveness is attributed to Marilynn B Brewer’s paper (Pers Soc Psychol Bull October 1991 vol. 17 no. 5 475-482) titled “The Social Self: On Being the Same and Different at the Same Time”, which is a great title. The abstract of this paper is here:

Most of social psychology’s theories of the self fail to take into account the significance of social identification in the definition of self. Social identities are self-definitions that are more inclusive than the individuated self-concept of most American psychology. A model of optimal distinctiveness is proposed in which social identity is viewed as a reconciliation of opposing needs for assimilation and differentiation from others. According to this model, individuals avoid self-construals that are either too personalized or too inclusive and instead define themselves in terms of distinctive category memberships. Social identity and group loyalty are hypothesized to be strongest for those self-categorizations that simultaneously provide for a sense of belonging and a sense of distinctiveness. Results from an initial laboratory experiment support the prediction that depersonalization and group size interact as determinants of the strength of social identification.

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