Punctuated Rebellion

To succeed as a rebel, talent is not enough.

Posted Dec 25, 2018

J. Krueger
Rebel Talent cover
Source: J. Krueger

"Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever."Napoleon Bonaparte

If you want to do well in business and life, Professor Francesca Gino of the Harvard Business School has some advice for you: rebel! To show that she means it, she mirror-images the second E so that it looks like the number 3 without the softening curves. Well, she does so on the dust jacket and on the third page, but not on the second page (see photo below), so there’s a message here.

The intents and the purposes of this new book seem familiar, as many business and life-coach writers have stressed over the years that business as usual may survive at best, but it cannot shine. Ditto for life. Ten years ago, almost to the day (12/29/2008), I posted my first essay on this blog, reporting from a self-help workshop conducted by a man who had written, among other works, a book that would be titled “Get out of those old shoes” had it been published in English (Krueger, 2008). Besides making some surprisingly misanthropic points, this guru-esque figure counseled his flock to open themselves up to new and daring adventures in life, given that the past hadn't worked out so well for most of them — if it had, they wouldn't have been there. He counseled experimentation, risk-taking, creativity, and novelty-seeking. Again, he was not the first to do this.

J. Krueger
RebTal 2
Source: J. Krueger

Gino’s challenge was to write a book counseling experimentation, risk-taking, creativity, and novelty-seeking without creating a déjà-vu all over again experience. Overall, she succeeds, although perhaps not marvelously so. Going beyond what we have already seen, Gino’s first maneuver is to use the word "rebel" as her rallying cry. Mild-mannered experimentation will not do. There are barriers to be cleared and resistance to be crushed. These barriers are all the familiar forces favoring the status quo: traditions, rules, processes, habits, and fears.

Gino breaks down the rebellious attitude into five elements: novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity, and authenticity. Novelty, curiosity, and diversity share the seeking and the acceptance of variety as their common stem. Even perspective is grounded in variety, because having perspective pays not just by having the correct outlook, but by being able to entertain several different ones. Authenticity stands out as unique, because it is anchored in one’s own truth; variety in this context emerges only as a byproduct, as when a person who has bowed to convention all her life finally starts doing what she really has been wanting to do all along.

A casual reading of Rebel Talent might give the impression that success in business and life can be found by maximizing rebelliousness. But she who bucks all trends, breaks all norms, and flouts all conventions flirts with disaster. Gino knows this, but leaves it to us to sort it out. My contribution to this effort is to note two ways in which successful rebellion is more punctuated than pervasive. One limitation is intrapersonal; the other is interpersonal. A more comprehensive review will be published in the American Journal of Psychology (Krueger, 2019b).  

The rebel within

The phenomenon at the heart of this book is the red-sneaker effect. Gino tells some illustrative cases and summarizes empirical work they inspired (Belleza et al., 2014). The idea is that some people can afford to break fashion rules and gain rather than lose respect in the process. Einstein was iconic in this regard, and Messrs. Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg followed his lead, which incidentally cost them some rebel cred. Gino herself, on a whim, put on red sneakers for a lecture to a conservative business audience, and she was pleased with the results. In her studies, respondents, e.g., employees of exclusive Milanese fashion houses, were asked to imagine a casually dressed woman or an elegantly clad lady entering the store. Who did they think was more likely to make a purchase? The casual one! The respondents attributed higher status and greater buying power to her. The plain woman, they figured, would not have entered the store had she not intended to make a purchase. The elegant lady might just be browsing. This inference illustrates the augmenting principle in causal attribution (Kelley, 1972). If a customer enters an exclusive store, even though her casual attire might raise eyebrows, her intention to buy must be really strong. Gino’s interpretation is slightly different. She suggests that the casual woman is sending a signal saying that she can afford not to care. She has the money, the status, and the power to buy overpriced clothes and not wear them. It is unclear to me why such a woman would want to impress lowly sales clerks . . . but hey, I'm just a simple country psychologist. The more pertinent examples of the red-sneaker argument are the Zuckerbergs and the Ginos of the world, because they have to project power and competence in order to sell and to teach.

The key to the 'rebel-within argument' is that the red sneakers come with a context in which all other cues spell power and competence. Gino herself, we imagine, was impeccably dressed, highly articulate, and flawlessly professional in her lecturing. In this environment, the red sneakers can have the intended augmenting effect. As an accent, the red sneakers depend on the presence of the typical cues signaling conformity with high expectations. Had she shuffled in unkempt and incoherent, neither sneakers nor heels would have had the desired effect. As Gino herself notes, “Context is everything” (p. 14). Indeed, if there is only one high-power cue amidst a constellation of low-power cues, the effort would probably backfire. Imagine a frowzy Fräulein entering Chanel’s at 51 Avenue Montaigne carrying an expensive-looking purse. Given the rest of her appearance, Monsieur Karl and colleagues will be quick to conclude that it is a knock-off.

The rebel among us

Much as everything else the person presents contributes to the direction and the magnitude of the rebel effect, so does whatever everyone else is doing. If everyone breaks convention in the same way, then what they do is effectively the new convention. A departure from one’s own behavioral pattern is not enough; to be a successful rebel, one must also depart from the collective pattern. This interdependence reveals the game aspect of rebellion. A successful rebel does what others are not doing to reap the highest payoff. The behavioral games that best capture this logic are the game of chicken (Krueger, 2011; Rapoport & Chammah, 1966) and its “degenerate” twin, the volunteer’s dilemma (VoD; Diekmann, 1985; Krueger, 2019). In these games, it is best to defect against cooperators, while mutual or universal defection is disastrous. In other words, a successful rebel needs those who follow the norms, uphold convention, cultivate tradition, and are otherwise boring. If all rebel, it’s not a rebellion, but a revolution, and the price of getting to a new normal (or "equilibrium") is often paid in pain and blood.

For Francesca Gino’s book to succeed, it has to be more than good, it has to be the only one of its kind. The former is assured, and the latter very likely.

I still owe you an explanation of why I think Gino’s inconsistent usage of the inverted letter E sends a message. But then again, I am confident that you can figure this out on your own now.

References

Belleza, S., Gino, F., & Keinan, A. (2014). The red-sneakers effect: Inferring status and competence from signals of nonconformity. Journal of Consumer Behavior, 41, 35-54.

Diekmann A. (1985). Volunteer’s dilemma. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 29, 605–610.

Gino, F. (2018). Rebel talent: why it pays to break the rules at work and in life. New York: HarperCollins.

Kelley, H. H. (1972). Causal schemata and the attribution process. In E. E. Jones, D. E. Kanouse, H. H. Kelley, R. S. Nisbett, S. Valins, & B. Weiner (Eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior (pp. 151–174). Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.


Krueger, J. I. (2008). Report on a self-help workshop. Psychology Today Online. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/one-among-many/200812/report-self-help-workshop

Krueger, J. I. (2011). Of entrepreneurs and chickens. Psychology Today Online. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/one-among-many/201110/entrepreneurs-and-chickens?amp=

Krueger, J. I. (2019a). The vexing volunteer’s dilemma. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Forthcoming.

Krueger, J. I. (2019b). Controlled eccentricity. American Journal of Psychology.

Rapoport, A., & Chammah, A. M. (1966). The game of chicken. American Behavioral Scientist, 10, 10-28.