The Social and Psychological Characteristics of Norm Deviants: A Field Study in a Small Cohesive University Campus


  • Robin Gomila
  • Elizabeth Levy Paluck


People who deviate from the established norms of their social group can clarify group boundaries, strengthen group cohesion, and catalyze group and broader social change. Yet social psychologists have recently neglected the study of deviants. We conducted in-depth interviews of Princeton University upperclassmen who deviated from a historical and widely known Princeton norm: joining an “eating club,” a social group that undergraduates join at the end of their sophomore year. We explored the themes of these interviews with two rounds of surveys during the semester when students decide whether to join an eating club (pilot survey, N = 408; and a random subsample of the pilot survey with 90% takeup, N = 212). The surveys asked: what are the social and psychological antecedents of deviance from norms? The data suggest that deviance is a pattern: compared to those who conform, students who deviate by not joining clubs report a history of deviance and of feeling different from the typical member of their social group. They also feel less social belonging and identification with Princeton and its social environment. Students who deviate are lower in self-monitoring, but otherwise are comparable to students who conform in terms of personality traits measured by the Big Five, and of their perception of the self as socially awkward, independent, or rebellious. While some of these findings replicate past research, worth further exploration is the role of previous experience with deviance and its meaning for individuals as they decide whether to deviate.