“Peacocking” and the Von Restorff Effect: The Science of Standing Out
By Heath Shive
Back in the 2000s, there was (and might still be) a legion of people on the internet identifying as pickup artists.
The most famous pickup artist (PUA) of them all was a man named Mystery, who was the central character of the best-selling book The Game by Neil Strauss.
Mystery popularized the idea of "peacocking” – the use of flair and wild dress to invoke interest. He would enter bars with rings on all his fingers, platform shoes, black fingernails, and a crumpled black velvet hat.
The point was to first get noticed – only then could a PUA begin to cultivate interest.
In psychology, the von Restorff effect predicts that the stimulus that differs the most from others is most likely the stimulus remembered.
More different is more memorable.
During the 2000s – following the lead of the PUA gurus – God-only-knows how many men were walking into bars with rings, rhinestone glasses, and shaved heads.
It’s easy to notice such men – but people ignore Science at their own peril.
To the science!
The von Restorff Effect
The von Restorff Effect is named after Hedwig von Restorff. She is the most famous (though not the first) early researcher on the role of distinctiveness on memory.
Von Restorff’s most obvious contribution was that the distinctiveness of an item depends on a strong similarity among the non-isolated items.
Read the following list: 1, 2, 3, 4, purple, 6, 7.
Easy to see that the word purple stands out. All other items on the list are numbers, thus strongly similar.
Distinction Can Be a Bad Thing Too
Now read this list: otter, raccoon, tarantula, penguin, giraffe.
Now which word stands out? Most likely you say tarantula. But why? Haven’t you noticed that giraffe is also very different? The giraffe is an herbivore, all the others are hunters.
But tarantula has a greater emotional response than giraffe.
Psychologist R. Reed Hunt - who wrote a great summarization of the subtleties of the von Restorff effect – reminds us that equating “perceptual salience with distinctiveness blurs a fundamental distinction.”
In other words, difference is dissimilarity with the surroundings; but distinctiveness is the “psychological effect of dissimilarity.”
So you can be a vivid memory, but what is your psychological effect? Are you distinctly...awful?
Mystery and his hat-wearing, purple-boa sporting crew went into urban night clubs – places where they could be different…but not in a bad way.
When I read The Game, not once did I read of Mystery and his gang walking into a country-western bar or biker bar or a bar next to a Marine base – places where their flair would be a bad distinction.
For that matter, I never read of them going to Trent Reznor or Marilyn Manson concerts – where their wild clothing would make them strongly similar (conform) rather than isolate them distinctly.
In other words, “peacocking” must be tailor-made – done in a specific way in specific crowds for specific effects.
Standing out can make you distinct – and it can make you an easier target too.
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Hunt, R. Reed . (1995). The subtlety of distinctiveness: What von Restorff really did. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 2(1), 105-112 (Accessed 15 Oct 2018)
Strauss, Neil. The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. Reganbooks, 2005.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.