Being a Misfit Doesn’t Bother Everybody
Most people assume that being a misfit makes people unhappy, if not miserable. The tales of The Ugly Duckling and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer illustrate how deeply this belief is ingrained in our culture. In both tales, the main characters suffer because they are different from others, because they do not fit in.
Research in psychology and sociology supports the idea that people suffer psychologically when they do not fit in. In a classic study from 1965, for example, the sociologist Morris Rosenberg found that Protestants and Catholics reported having lower self-esteem when they lived in a neighborhood in which most people were of the other religion and, thus, they didn’t “fit in.” Likewise, in 2010, a team of cultural psychologists compared the self-esteem levels of extraverted people in two types of nations: highly extraverted countries in which inhabitants were generally quite extraverted and less extraverted countries in which inhabitants were generally less extraverted. In line with the researchers’ expectations, extraverted people reported lower self-esteem when they lived in countries in which most people were less extraverted.
Yet, does misery inevitably result from not fitting in, as people assume? Our research team had reason to suspect that failing to fit in does not always make people unhappy. Our earlier research suggested that assertive, creative, and open people do not care all that much whether or not they fit in. So, such people may not suffer a great deal from being a misfit. Our earlier research also suggested that warmhearted, nice, and agreeable people have a particularly strong desire to fit in. As a result, those people may suffer particularly strongly when they think they don’t fit in.
Our most recent research, which examined a very large dataset that included more than 2.5 million people from 102 nations, compared two groups of people. The first group consisted of people with personality traits that should lower the negative effects of being a misfit, such as high levels of assertiveness, creativity, and openness, and low levels of warmth, niceness, and agreeableness. The second group contained people with personality traits that should amplify the negative effects of being a misfit: low levels of assertiveness, creativity, and openness, and high levels of warmth, niceness, and agreeableness. We expected that the first group would suffer less from not fitting in than the second group.
By and large, that’s what we found. Being a misfit was not associated with misery in the first group of people—those who were high in assertiveness, creativity, and openness and low in warmth, niceness, and agreeableness. However, people in the second group—those who were low in assertiveness, creativity, and openness and high in warmth, niceness, and agreeableness—were much more miserable when they didn’t fit in.
Importantly, we measured misfit in a variety of ways. For example, we measured religious misfit—being religious in non-religious nations or non-religious in religious nations. We also measured political misfit—being liberal in conservative U.S. states or conservative in liberal U.S. states. We also used different measures of misery, including low self-esteem and depression.
To the best of our knowledge, these results are the first to show that the negative effects of not fitting in are not equally strong for everybody and that some people may not suffer all that much when they don’t fit in. On the other hand, we also identified personality traits that lead misfits to be particularly unhappy. In particular, people who are low in assertiveness, creativity, and openness and high in warmth, niceness, and agreeableness seem to be most troubled when they don’t fit in.
The next time you see a nice but not very assertive person who doesn’t seem to fit into a particular group of people, it’s worth remembering that he or she is likely to feel particularly uncomfortable. To help this person feel better, you may want to talk to this person and look for things you have in common.
For Further Reading (openly available, by clicking on the link)
Gebauer, J. E., Eck, J., Entringer, T. M., Bleidorn, W., Rentfrow, P. J., Potter, J., & Gosling, S. D. (2020). The well-being benefits of person-culture match are contingent on basic personality traits. Psychological Science, 31, 1283-1293. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620951115
Jochen Gebauer is Heisenberg-Professor of Cross-Cultural Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Mannheim, Germany and Professor of Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Jennifer Eck is a postdoctoral researcher at the Heisenberg-Professorship of Cross-Cultural Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Mannheim, Germany.