Notes from “Uniqueness The Human Pursuit of Difference” by C.R. Snyder and Howard L. Fromkin

Uniqueness theory as proposed by the authors of the book “Uniqueness, The Human Pursuit of Difference” by C.R. Snyder and Howard L. Fromkin Copyright 1980 Plenum Press, essentially boils down to a conflict of forces of attraction and repulsion of individuals towards each other in terms of like and dislike or dispositions to socially interact with one another.  Such forces of attraction and repulsion remind one of a similar interplay of conflicting forces in other domains such as that of territorial behavior between animals or in physics models of the behavior of atomic particles.

The authors discuss a curvilinear relationship between average acceptance levels of individuals’ perceived similarities with others with regards to various attributes that might give a person a sense of identity and uniqueness.  This relationship shows low acceptibility levels exhibited by most individuals when they perceive themselves as least alike to another individual.  They show increasing acceptibility levels by most inidividuals when they perceive themselves as more and more like others up to a level of moderate similarity.  When the level of perceived similarity goes beyond the moderate level the degree of acceptance begins to decrease towards low acceptability with a perception of very high levels of similarity with respect to others. 

This relationship and the counteracting struggle between forces of attraction and repulsion is similar to the Lenard Jones potential function from the domain of physics:

U = – (A / rn) + (B / rm)

Lenard Jones potential function 

where U is the potential energy and r is the distance between two molecules.  The derivative of this potential energy function with respect to distance r might yield a formula relating the change in force experienced by a particle as it changes its location.

While the analagous potential function for Uniqueness theory has two minimum endpoints and one maximum midpoint, literary works as well as scientific works preceding this book have concentrated only on the one of the minimum endpoints and the maximum midpoint. 

There are numerous literary precedents concerning extreme repulsion, autoscopic paranoia and disdain at the real or imagined discovery of “der doppelgänger” or duplicate of oneself:

  1.  The short story “William Wilson” by Edgar Allen Poe (Poe, E. A. William Wilson. In E.A. Poe’s, The works of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Scribner’s, 1927, pp.5-32.)
  2. Guy de Maupassant’s story of his own autoscopic hallucinations entitled “He?” (Maupassant, G. de.Short stories: Margot’s tapers and others. New York: Review of Books, 1903.)
  3. Henry James “The Jolly Corner” (James, H. Jolly Corner. In H. James, The altar of the dead. New York: Scribner’s, 1909, pp. 435-485.)
  4. Dostoevsky’s novel “The Double” (Dostoevsky, F.M. The Double. G. Bird (Trans.), Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958)

Much psychology work has focused on the concept of “birds of a feather flock together” but have failed to critically define the level of similarity between the “birds flocking together”.  This has led to the false assumption that a steady growth in similarity between individuals will continually lead to growing attraction between these individuals.  This ignores the evidence presented by the authors of this book that beyond a level of moderate similarity this steady growth in attraction not only declines but the growth changes slope and becomes negative leading to decay in attraction levels.

Various studies of personal reactions to perceived uniqueness with respect to others have been conducted using measures such as:

  1. mood scale surveys
  2. self-esteem surveys
  3. evaluations of how participants distort information given them about their similarities with others when asked to verbally express this information to an audience.
  4. evaluations of body language and nonverbal expressions such as interpersonal distances maintained between participants and others whose degree of similarity with themselves on enumerated attributes they have been made aware of.
  5. evaluations of ingenuity performance levels of individuals in low versus high self-uniqueness perception environments.
  6. evaluations of how the demand for scarce experiences can increase for individuals provided an artificially high sense of self-perceived non-uniqueness.

The authors discuss how such studies when objectively considered and screened against false positives help reinforce the aforementioned curvilinear relation provided by uniqueness theory.

The previously discussed model of emotional and behavioral reactions of persons as functions of perceived similarity to others assumes that the others used for comparison with the individual are presented without additional positive or negative bias.  Such positive or negative bias may be introduced for comparison others as individuals by attaching positive and/or negative labels, personal history anecdotes or information concerning their membership in groups.  Group membership may thus introduce emotions of affinity or repulsion in the individuals comparing themselves with other indlviduals belonging or not belonging to such groups.  The existence of social groups is reinforced by the needs of individuals to obtain more accurate self-appraising feedback by associating with others somewhat similar to themselves that can serve as a yardstick against which they can measure their own personal performance and improvements.  Positive or negative bias information influences the curvilinear relationship of uniqueness theory by shifting the curve right (positive) or left (negative). This is evident from observations that people tend to want to be more similar, even highly similar to persons they view as positive and uplifting.  Likewise people tend to want to be more unlike persons they regard in a negative light, e.g. those they regard as vulgar or undesirable.


Reasons to be unique: 

Besides theory, numerous persons, famous and otherwise have commented on our need as humans to be unique, to offer our own special contribution to the world. Here is a quote by Martha Graham, the famous dancer that expresses this idea succinctly:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.

The authors provide the following quote by Henry David Thoreau:

“It is one of the great paradoxes — and equally redeeming features — of human history and evolution that a scale of organized society grows and as the gregarious and enveloping nature of that society increasingly dominates the individual, the very same process highlights the extreme individuality of the human conscience.  The more the conformist nature of society grows, the more accented is the nonconformity of what the ancient Hindus called the “atman” — the individual soul.  It is the spirit of nonconformity that has enriched the dialogue of human progress — no less, indeed, in the material fields than in the spiritual.  (Nehru, B.K. Henry David Thoreau: A tribute. In W. Harding (Ed.), The Thoreau centennial. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1964, pp. 112-119.)

 


My results in taking the Need for Uniqueness Scale (Fromkin and Lipshitz, 1976; Snyder & Fromkin 1977):

Each of the following questions were answered on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 meant I had the strongest disagreement and a 5 meant I had the strongest agreement:

#
Question My Answer Score
1 When I am in a group of strangers, I am not reluctant to express my opinion publicly. 5 5
2 I find that  criticism affects my self-esteem. 4 2
3 I sometimes hesitate to use my own ideas for fear they might be impractical. 4  2
4 I think society should let reason lead it to new customs and throw aside old habits or mere traditions. 2  2
5 People frequently succeed in changing my mind. 3  3
6 I find it sometimes amusing to upset the dignity of teachers, judges, and “cultured” people. 4  4
7 I like wearing a uniform because it makes me proud to be a member of the organization it represents. 4  2
8 People have sometimes called me “stuck-up.” 2  2
9 Others’ disagreements make me uncomfortable. 3  3
10 I do not always need to live by the rules and standards of society. 5  5
11 I am unable to express my feelings if they result in undesirable consequences. 4  2
12 Being a success in one’s career means making a contribution that no one else has made. 4  4
13 It bothers me if people think I am being too unconventional. 4  2
14 I always try to follow rules. 4  2
15 If I disagree with a superior on his or her views, I usually do not keep it to myself. 3  3
16 I speak up in meetings in order to oppose those whom I feel are wrong. 4  4
17 Feeling “different” in a crowd of people makes me feel uncomfortable. 3  3
18 If I must die, let it be an unusual death rather than an ordinary death in bed. 1  1
19 I would rather be just like everyone else than be called a “freak.” 4  2
20 I must admit I find it hard to work under strict rules and regulations. 5  5
21 I would rather be known for always trying new ideas than for employing well-trusted methods. 2  2
22 It is better always to agree with the opinions of others than to be considered a disagreeable person. 2  4
23 I do not like to say unusual things to people. 4  2
24 I tend to express my opinions publicly, regardless of what others say. 4  4
25 As a rule, I strongly defend my own opinions. 4  4
26 I do not like to go my own way. 3  3
27 When I am with a group of people, I agree with their ideas so that no arguments will arise. 3  3
28 I tend to keep quiet in the presence of persons of higher rank, experience, etc. 4  2
29 I have been quite independent and free from family rule. 4  4
30 Whenever I take part in group activities, I am somewhat of a nonconformist. 4  4
31 In most things in life, I believe in playing it safe rather than taking a gamble. 4  2
32 It is better to break rules than always to conform with an impersonal society. 4  4

My total score was 96.  A score of 100 meant average need for uniqueness, and scores below 100 meant less than average need for uniqueness.  So apparently I don’t need to feel as unique as most people, which surprised me.  I thought myself a bit more nonconformist than the rest of the crowd.  I guess the average person seeks just a little more nonconformity than I do. Or perhaps I am highly nonconformist only in a narrow field (e.g. in my expression of opinion to non-authority figures or in an environment of higher anonymity) but more highly conforming in most other ways.

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