The Perks of Being a Weirdo

How not fitting in can lead to creative thinking

Illustration of rows of green heads with one upside-down yellow head
Alex Merto

My childhood was, by most definitions, pretty strange. I grew up a Russian Jewish immigrant in Midland, Texas, in a region whose biggest claims to fame are being the onetime home of George W. Bush and the inspiration for Friday Night Lights. In preschool, I got in trouble for not praying before eating my snack; later, I didn’t know what this “Super Bowl” everyone kept talking about was. I felt hopelessly different from everyone else in our town.

Even after we moved to a Dallas suburb, I never encountered another Russian immigrant kid like me. I rode the bus alone. I spent almost every evening alone. I began talking to myself—a habit that has unfortunately stuck. Once, someone toilet-papered our house, and I had to explain to my parents that this is what American kids do to losers. Undeterred, my dad eagerly raked the toilet paper into a garbage bag and put it in my parents’ bathroom for future use. “Free toilet paper!” he said happily over dinner.

All I wanted to be was normal. I wanted to be as American as my classmates; I wanted a past that, when I explained it to people, compelled no one to ask “Why?” about any part of it. But with time, I’ve come to realize that there’s an upside to being different from everyone around you. In fact, a body of social-science research suggests that being an oddball or a social reject can spark remarkable creativity.

Sharon Kim, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s business school, told me she’d always noticed that some people credit their creative successes to being loners or rebels. Kim wondered whether social pariahs are actually more creative, so she decided to test the theory by inviting some volunteers to her lab to complete a couple of exercises. Before they began, Kim and her colleagues “rejected” some of the study subjects by telling them they weren’t picked to work as part of “the group.” There was no group—Kim and her team just wanted to make them feel left out. Others weren’t snubbed in the same way. Kim asked the participants to perform a pair of exercises on paper. In one, they were asked to determine what united a series of seemingly unrelated words (fish, mine, and rush, for instance—the answer is gold). In the other, they were told to draw an alien from a planet very unlike our own.

The rejects, it turned out, were better at both exercises. For the alien task, the nonrejected participants drew standard, cartoonish Martians. But the rejected participants drew aliens that looked radically different from humans—they had all of their appendages sticking out of one side of their body, or their eyes below their nose. The outcasts’ drawings were more creative, as rated by three independent judges.

So rejection and creativity were related, Kim determined. But with a caveat. The advantage was seen only among participants who had an “independent self-concept”—meaning they already felt they didn’t belong. There appeared to be something about being a weirdo that could uncork your mind and allow new ideas to flow.

For many people, that effect starts in childhood. When Arnold M. Ludwig, an adjunct psychiatry professor at Brown University, examined the lives of more than 1,000 eminent people—including Frida Kahlo, Jean-Paul Sartre, and John Lennon—for his book The Price of Greatness, he found that creative types, such as artists and writers, were more likely than, say, businesspeople to be considered “odd or peculiar” as children, and more likely than public officials or soldiers to be considered “different” as adults. In his 1962 study of architects, the psychologist Donald W. MacKinnon similarly found that the families of more creative architects had moved around a lot when they were kids, which appeared “to have resulted frequently in some estrangement of the family from its immediate neighborhood,” he said. Not surprisingly, many of the more creative architects said they’d felt isolated as children.

An unusual childhood is not the only thing that can make you more creative. Being considered “weird” in your culture can also enhance an element of creativity called “integrative complexity.” People who are strong in integrative complexity tend to handle uncertainty well and excel at reconciling conflicting information. They’re often able to see problems from multiple perspectives.

Chris Crandall, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, told me that people who are on the periphery of society tend to be freer to innovate and change social norms. “Fashion norms come from the bottom up,” he said. Outsiders are less concerned with what the in-crowd thinks of them, so they have more leeway to experiment.

In fact, people who don’t fit neatly into a particular group have been found, over and over, to perform better at outside-the-box thinking. Foreigners are often considered strange, but there are psychological advantages to feeling like a stranger. Children who are exposed to multiple languages—perhaps because, like me, they were raised in a country far from where they were born—are better able to understand an adult’s perspective, and they may go on to become better communicators overall. In one experiment, people who had lived abroad were especially good at finding hidden solutions to word and conceptual problems. That might help explain why Pablo Picasso began experimenting with Cubism in Paris, and George Frideric Handel composed his Messiah while living in England.

Happily for those who have never lived abroad, this creativity boost can also happen for people who live in unusual frames of mind, rather than exotic locales. In a small study, Rodica Damian, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Houston, and her colleagues had college students engage in a virtual-reality exercise in which the laws of physics didn’t apply. In this virtual world, things fell up instead of down. When compared with another group that performed an exercise in which the laws of physics functioned normally, those who had the physics-warping experience were able to come up with more creative answers to the question “What makes sound?”

Damian has a theory she’s researching: that all kinds of unusual experiences can boost creativity. For example, people often report having breakthroughs after magic-mushroom trips or extreme adventures. “The idea behind this is that once you’ve experienced things that violate norms and rules and expectations, you’re more open to more things like that,” Damian told me. “You experienced that the world doesn’t have to work by your rules, so you can break the rules.”

Of course, more weirdness is not always better. If something too jarring happens to you, just dealing with it might use up all your mental capacity. It might be weird for, say, a grizzly bear to invade your yard and destroy your car. But rather than basking in your newfound creativity afterward, you’re probably going to be calling your insurance company.

Regardless, trying to think about your weirdness in a positive way—a process called cognitive reappraisal—can help you cope with the adversity that often comes with being an outlier. Reframing what makes you weird as being what gives you strength can, ultimately, make you happier.

Unusual perspectives can also boost the decision-making power of the broader group you’re a part of. Solomon Asch’s famous experiments in the 1950s revealed the occasional ludicrousness of conformity. When told to match a line with one of three other lines (two of which were obviously different sizes), participants selected a wrong option about one-third of the time when others in the group, confederates working with the researcher, gave that wrong answer too. The experiment has become a classic example of how willingly people follow a crowd. When one participant was later asked why he conformed in this way, he said he was worried about being seen as “peculiar.” That is, he didn’t want to be considered weird.

But less well known is a variation of the experiment in which Asch introduced another variable—this time, one of the confederates gave the right answer while the rest of the crowd tried to mislead the participant. Having just one person who broke with the majority reduced conformity among the responses by about 80 percent. Perhaps the participants in those trials felt as though they and the dissenter could at least be weird together. Interestingly, they were less likely to conform even if the dissenter disagreed with the crowd but was still wrong. The dissenter appeared to give the participants permission to disagree.

The liberating effect of dissenting viewpoints has been replicated in other studies, and it underscores the value of having a diverse array of people around to poke holes in prevailing ideas. The reason minority views are so potent, according to research on persuasion, is that people tend to scrutinize them more carefully. When we hear a dissenting view, we think more critically about what’s being said, prompting a consideration of different sides of an issue. Majorities, meanwhile, spur us to think only about data that support the majority perspective. As Charlan Nemeth and Jack Goncalo put it in the book Rebels in Groups, “Minorities stimulate more originality while majorities stimulate more conventionality of thought.”

Unfortunately, though, when people stop being “weird,” these benefits go away. When people who were once in the minority become the majority, research shows that they tend to become more closed-minded. Weirdness has its perks, but nothing is weird forever.

This article is adapted from Olga Khazan’s forthcoming book, Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World.