Leadership & Management

People in the Minority May Know Themselves Better

Research explores why some people hold minority opinions and also seek them out.

March 01, 2010

| by Marguerite Rigoglioso

Being in the minority on any issue can mean facing potential hostility, ostracism, or even punishment. Yet some people not only hold minority opinions, but also actually seek them out. Why is that?

New research from Stanford GSB finds that one benefit of knowing you’re in the minority is a clearer sense of self. Business organizations, which have been shown to improve their decision making through the presence of diverse ideas, may therefore want to think about more structured ways for encouraging naysayers to speak up.

In the first of three related studies, those who thought they held a minority view scored significantly higher on a questionnaire that measured their sense of “self-concept clarity” — that is, their sense of self-identity. Participants were asked whether they favored the death penalty in murder cases. They were then given fictitious data about other people’s opinions on the matter, and were randomly told they were either in the majority or the minority. People with strong self-concept clarity agreed more strongly with questions in the follow-up survey such as “I have a clear sense of who I am,” while those with less clear self images agreed more with statements such as “My beliefs about myself change very frequently.”

“People often establish their identities by the opinions they hold, and minority opinions can be particularly efficacious in this regard. Minority opinions can provide people an especially clear sense of who they are,” says Christian Wheeler, associate professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business and coauthor of the study with Kimberly Rios Morrison of Ohio State University.

A second study showed that the effect is strong particularly when the issue at hand is at the core of an individual’s values. When asked their views on affirmative action, participants who were told they were in the minority and who believed their opinion to be very representative of their personal values were especially likely to report having a clear definition of self. “After learning they were in the minority on something that was very value-relevant to them, they subsequently became more certain of who they were,” says Wheeler.


A third study found that people who believed they held a minority opinion in a group that was personally important also demonstrated higher self-concept clarity than those who believed they were part of the majority. The more closely the individuals identified with the group, the greater the likelihood that being told they held a minority opinion would result in high scores on the self-concept clarity survey. “The more central the group was to the participants, the more their minority status boosted their self-concept clarity. Holding opinions that place one in the minority in an important group may help people simultaneously satisfy needs for belonging and distinctiveness,” suggests Wheeler.

In addition to showing why people may be motivated to hold minority opinions, other research by Wheeler and Morrison examines what might motivate people to express such opinions. Interestingly, they find that individuals are more likely to speak up when they have a sense of doubt about their views. “They try to repair their sense of self-doubt by expressing their minority opinions more frequently and forcefully,” Wheeler reports.

Because organizations have been shown to make better decisions when they allow a range of views to be expressed, they may benefit by creating environments in which employees are challenged slightly and thereby feel stimulated to express what they’re thinking, say the researchers. “This could help prevent the kind of group think that can be the death of any organization,” concludes Wheeler.

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