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The Sex Appeal of Non-Conformity

New research finds following your own path is a turn-on to potential romantic partners of both sexes.
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(Photo: Volt Collection/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Volt Collection/Shutterstock)

Want to attract members of the opposite sex? Here’s a tip: If you’re asked to name your favorite band, book, or beverage, choose one that’s really obscure.

Granted, there’s a chance you’ll come across as pretentious (it’s all in the tone of voice). But more likely, you’ll signal that you’re someone who has no interest in conforming to the crowd.

And according to new research from Australia, that’s sexy.

“Nonconformity is more attractive than conformity for women and men,” reports a research team led by University of Queensland psychologist Matthew Hornsey. “People think that men prefer conformist women, but this impression is discrepant from reality.”

"Nonconformist targets were more desirable as romantic partners than conformist targets," the researchers report—a trend that proved "equally strong for male and female participants." 

In the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Hornsey and his colleagues describe five studies that provide evidence for this assertion. One of them featured 115 undergraduates, each of whom read brief profiles of 20 people. These were written to emphasize either conformity ("She is quite happy to go along with what others are doing") or non-conformity ("She often does her own thing rather than fit in with the group").

Those participants who read profiles of members of the opposite sex were then asked to rate the attractiveness of each person, and the degree to which they would like to go out with them. Those who read descriptions of members of their own gender were asked to evaluate whether members of the opposite sex were likely to find the subjects desirable.

"Nonconformist targets were more desirable as romantic partners than conformist targets," the researchers report—a trend that proved "equally strong for male and female participants." However, "women overestimated how attracted men would be to the conformist women."

In another study, 111 students each evaluated a member of the opposite sex who displayed either conformist or non-conformist tendencies. (This was demonstrated by the fact that they agreed or disagreed with the majority about the aesthetic appeal of a series of patterns.) "Nonconformists were accorded more positive regard than conformists," the researchers report.

If you're wondering whether this reflects Western values as opposed to human nature per se, the researchers took that issue into account in another study. It featured 515 people from the United States or the United Kingdom and 306 from India, and found that "people who displayed nonconformist personality traits also reported higher levels of romantic achievement and satisfaction."

Finally, a separate study of 310 Americans found they were "most attracted to their ex-partners the more they judged their ex-partners to be nonconformist." Again, this held true for both men and women.

So why do so many people mistakenly believe men prefer conformist partners? Hornsey and his colleagues suspect this is a hangover from an earlier era, in which “women were expected to be submissive, modest, subdued, agreeable.”

That notion has largely disappeared in a society in which “the notion of compromising one’s individual vision to fit in with the crowd is seen as immature,” and “the word conformist has an increasingly pejorative tone to it,” the researchers write. But, they add, “old cultural assumptions are slow to die.”

So both women and men shouldn’t hesitate to show off their maverick tendencies. As sex symbols from Elvis to Lady Gaga have intuited, there’s something racy about being a rebel.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.