Field Guide to The Contrarian
Contrarians don't care what you think.
By Elizabeth Svoboda published May 1, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
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 lemmings." "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 in a Halloween 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-of-the-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. Others 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," says University of 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 strong moral 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. While contrarians often see themselves as righteous defenders of truth, others may experience them as crotchety pot-stirrers. "In the movie Twelve Angry Men, a lone juror disagrees with the group and a grumpy old man goes, 'Oh, there's always one,'" Rios says. "It's a perfect depiction of how a lot of people feel about contrarians."
Despite the inevitable blowback that comes from expressing unpopular views, many dyed-in-the-wool contrarians focus on the benefits. "I see 'weirdos' as the leaders of society—those promoting progress and being as honest, forthright, and brave as possible," says Whitaker. "I'm proud to walk among them."
Case Study: The Political Deviant (Opposium washingtonicus)
They're the soapbox preachers in your social circle—people who thrive on the righteous belief that they alone have the world all figured out. Political contrarians are more interested in sticking to their guns than in playing by traditional political rules—they may insist on voting for no-shot third-party candidates. "These people have given up on the power structure and tend to be critical of what they hear from that power structure because their experiences have been so bad," says Sternberg.
But while these spitfires portray themselves as martyrs for causes, like reinstating the gold standard, there's a lot in it for them, too. "For people who adopt contrarian lifestyles, membership in certain controversial groups can satisfy both the need to be unique and the need to fit in with others," Rios says.
Political contrarians often provoke eye rolling, but Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both risked going against the tide of popular opinion to defend causes they believed in. And morally motivated nonconformists can help fight wrongdoing in society, points out Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo. "To be a hero," he says, "you have to pull yourself away from the power of the group and take solitary action."
Case Study:The Out-of-Context Dresser (Opposium sartorialis)
The teenager who dyes her locks Kool-Aid purple and the steampunk devotee who wears a three-piece suit to baseball games both reflect the tangled truth for some contrarians: Projecting overconfidence and individuality on the outside can be a way to mask uncertainty on the inside. "A large part of people's motivation to be certain is not only so they can reassure themselves," says Rios, "but also so they can convey that message to other people."
Attire is one of the surest ways to mark one's rejection of a group. "Your clothing is an incredibly accurate indicator of what you think of yourself and your life," writes psychologist Jennifer Baumgartner in You Are What You Wear.
Contrarian dressers may be flaunting their creativity or expressing their defiance. But whatever the motivation, many welcome the shock and attention that results; it helps reinforce an identity as someone who is not just another face in the crowd. When people give contrarians funny looks or ask about their unusual attire, it quells their fears of being overlooked or forgotten. "For people who are grappling with 'Who am I?,'" Rios says, "their motive to be unique trumps their motive to belong."
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