As a child I felt a very strong need to be unique.  I desperately needed to possess likes and ambitions that were distinct from other children in my age group and therefore the views expressed by others dramatically affected the way that I approached the world.

I remember one day from my youth – I was probably four – when my brother brought home a green toy car from school. I first saw it in my brother’s hand when he was walking through the front hall – I was rapt in jealousy over this new toy.  The green plastic was just translucent enough so you could see the light dance through it.  Mmm! – That was a good-looking toy.

I wanted one.  Using all the articulation I could muster I asked my parents if I could have one as well.  To my delight, my parents said I could.  They also said that my brother got a green one because green was his favorite color and they would get any color for me that I chose.  Then they asked me the hard question: what was my favorite color?

When I heard this question, I immediately stalled.  The truth of the matter is that my favorite color was green, just like my brother.  And not just any shade of green either, my favorite color was the exact shade of green of my brother’s toy.  I distinctly remember feeling a deep emotional connection with that shade of green and yet I stood there thinking over the question, thoughts racing through my immature brain.  After a few minutes of thinking, I stood up straight and stated assertively that my favorite color was yellow.

Yellow?  What four-year-old boy says their favorite color is yellow?  And truthfully, I didn’t even really like the color yellow; I just desperately needed to be unique from my brother who had already declared that his favorite color was green.  I acted irrationally, lied, and ended up with a yellow toy just because I was terribly afraid of being like everyone else.

Although it’s probably a little better disguised, I think that the need to be unique exists in the grown-up world as well.  Specifically I believe it is one of the main drivers behind the law of market duality.

The law of market duality is the notion that in the long run, every market will become dominated by two players.  Think – Coke vs. Pepsi, or PC’s vs. Mac’s, or Lowes vs. Home Depot.  From an economic perspective, I’m sure there are many reasons for this principle to exist, however from a purely behavioral perspective I think the need to be unique drives people to always support at least two viable alternatives in each market.  If there were only one choice, there would be no way to differentiate your friends, coworkers, or peer companies (or even your brother).  I believe that sometimes people will actually opt for a sub-optimal choice, just so they can be unique individuals.

Much of what I learn about human behavior, I learn from myself as a child.  By studying the times when I acted irrationally for seemingly no reason, I learn a little bit more about the way people make decisions.  I find that it’s a great way to learn about behavioral economics because I remember the way I felt when I made each irrational decision.  From a purely statistical perspective, this probably isn’t a great way to draw conclusions, but the data is inexpensive and easy to access.  Also, seeing my childhood neuroses manifest themselves as broad trends in the business world actually makes me feel a little better about myself.  I guess I wasn’t so weird after all.

The Need to be Unique
  • I can’t I agree that the desire to be special has any bearing on the “law of duality”…

    Well, I don’t believe in said law to begin with.

    Though even if I did, I’d hesitate to draw any such relationship.

    As a note…

    > Also, seeing my childhood neuroses manifest themselves as broad trends in the business world actually makes me feel a little better about myself. I guess I wasn’t so weird after all.

    Two things.

    First: how does the desire to be unique square with the desire to not be “so weird”?

    Second: There’s a real cognitive danger in trying to use childhood (or current) experiences to come to conclusions about the broad business world.

    1) Assuming a relationship can provide a superficially sound explanation resulting in deeply misleading conclusions.
    2) Cognitive biases make that sort of extrapolation very difficult without unbiased external validating evidence (which you don’t have).
    3) You are adopting a limited “window” through which to look at the world. It’s a limited perspective, and you may find the conclusions you come to limited – esp. where a different perspective may make much more sense.

  • Andrew Eifler

    Re: the desire to be unique disagreeing with the desire to not be “so weird” – touche. Good point.

    Regarding external unbiased validation – I guess that’s why i’m lucky to have you! :) Thanks for the thoughts here.

  • Andrew, I appreciate the relationship you draw between an individual’s need to be unique and the law of market duality. However, I have to disagree that such a parallel exists: i) I do not agree that children inherently seek to be different, ii) a number of market factors – specifically within the U.S. – lead to distinct market leaders within a vertical.

    Children are, by nature, followers who conform to society. Even as toddlers, and through adulthood, decisions are influenced by the majority. From succumbing to peer pressure to desiring the same meal at dinner as an elder sibling, children imitate those who they respect – thus, why parenting by example is a common theory (e.g. if you want your child to get off the couch then you should get off the couch).

    My favorite color is green too, and I would have asked my parents for the same exact one as my brother.

  • Andrew Eifler

    Thanks so much for the comment here. I guess the risk of studying myself as a child is limited sample size. I guess maybe I am pretty weird.

  • Jordan

    I love pissing off my brother by ordering chicken-tikka-masala at an Indian restaurant right after he does. It encroaches his originality and pursuit of ~property. USP’s diversify risk in markets, ecosystems, and even nice little American families. Yellow is such a little-brother choice… I would have picked it too.

  • Andrew Eifler

    Thanks for the comment here. I’ve gotten a lot of emails and messages about this post. Evidently the need to be unique is not a universal concept – and an unlikely influence on world economies. It’s looking like most people actually do not want to be unique. However, I’m happy I wrote about it, otherwise I’d never know :)

  • Well, I think people have a desire to stand out – which is another way of “being unique.” More formally, you could call it “the quest for social status.”

    I’d say being unique is a strategy, not the end goal.

    Also, what percentage of responses are via email as opposed to comments? Strange.

    P.S. I’m not getting notified of follow up comments.

  • Andrew Eifler

    I like the notion of “the need to stand out” – I think there’s more here to explore. Looks like I may have only scratched the surface.

    Got 2 or 3 emails – sometimes people respond to me that way rather than post here.

    One of my goals for the new year is to get disqus working so this isn’t an issue anymore. I may try to enlist your help :)

  • Sure, let me know re: Disqus. Once you sign up for an account, I doubt it’d take me more than 15 minutes to get it working / fix any issues.