5/10/2014 Field Guide to The Contrarian | Psychology Today

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201206/field-guide-the-contrarian 1/3
Most people are groomed from early childhood to conform to social
Field Guide to The Contrarian
Contrarians don't care what you think.
By Elizabeth Svoboda, published on May 01, 2012 - last reviewed on July 02, 2012
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."
Generosity is a trait of character where problematic
tendencies abound.
Molly S. Castelloe, Ph.D.

Reinvent Yourself
Focus on your f uture self , you'll be
surprised at what you can achieve.
Home Find a Therapist Topic Streams Get Help Magazine Tests Psych Basics Experts
5/10/2014 Field Guide to The Contrarian | Psychology Today
http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201206/field-guide-the-contrarian 2/3
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, and some 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
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
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
Find a Therapist
Search for a mental
health professional
near you.
City or Zip
Find Local:
Massage Therapists
and more!
City or Zip
5/10/2014 Field Guide to The Contrarian | Psychology Today
http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201206/field-guide-the-contrarian 3/3
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."

© Copyright 1991-2014
Sussex Publishers, LLC

© Copyright 2002-2014 Sussex Directories, Inc.
Privacy Policy
Site Help/Customer
Terms of Use
Therapy Directory Index
Healthprof s Index
Buildingpros Index
Follow Psychology Today: Twitter FaceBook Google+

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful