Why David Bowie Was So Loved: The Science of Nonconformity

Music icon David Bowie passed away on Jan. 11. Astronauts, scientists and members of the spaceflight industry are paying tribute to the artist online. Credit: David Bowie official Facebook page

In the aftermath of David Bowie’s death at age 69 from cancer, a re-occurring theme has appeared in tributes to the famously idiosyncratic performer: his importance to those who felt like misfits.

“Yes, I’m obsessing about Bowie today,” tweeted science writer Steve Silberman. “To the terrified gay kid I was in high school, he was a proud and flamboyant middle finger to bullies.”

Across both social and conventional media, other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender artists echoed Silberman’s words. “Bowie made me feel OK with my weirdness,” bisexual actress Giovannie Espiritu told The Daily Dot.

In fact, Bowie’s androgyny, theatrical style and tendency to reinvent himself resonated with LGBT people and many others. [5 Myths About Gay People Debunked]

“He was so important for all of the people who felt different, who felt like outsiders, who felt like their identities, for whatever reason, weren’t recognized and loved,” said Angela Mazaris, the director of the LGBTQ Center at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

The outpouring of grief over Bowie’s death shows just how important such recognition can be. But research has shown the same thing. Humans, even as they crave acknowledgement as individuals, find it important to see others who are like them.

Fitting in

The need to conform starts young. Researchers reporting in a 2014 study compared the behaviors of 2-year-old children with those of chimpanzees and orangutans. Both the apes and human children were shown a toy box that, if used correctly, would dispense a treat. After learning how to get the treats, the participants watched other kids or apes use the box in a different, non-treat-dispensing, way. The other kids or apes then watched as the original participant got the chance to play with the treat box again.

Subsequently, the apes continued their tried-and-true method of getting treats from the box. But 2-year-olds switched their method 50 percent of the time, researchers reported in the journal Psychological Science. The toddlers were more likely to copy others’ behavior when their peers were watching them play than when alone.

“We were surprised that children as young as 2 years of age would already change their behavior just to avoid the relative disadvantage of being different,” study researcher Daniel Huan, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, said in a statement.

Multiple studies have found that people gravitate toward others like them. One 2014 paper revealed that people even like those withvoices and speaking styles similar to their own. Even infants choose puppets that like the foods kids like, found research by Yale University psychologist Karen Wynn. A 2013 study out of Wynn’s laboratory showed that babies prefer puppets that are nice to individuals who resemble the kids (in this case, still based on food preferences) andmean to individuals not like the children.

An alternative conformity

In light of this strong psychological predisposition for conformity, David Bowie was a ray of glamorous, sequin-studded light. [10 Celebrities with Chronic Illnesses]

“When you read accounts of people who remember seeing David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust for the first time, they talk about this sort of awakening,” Mazaris told Live Science. The rocker’s bisexual alien alter ego portrayed androgyny and nonheterosexual sexuality as beautiful and worth celebrating, she said.

“I think it’s about being able to imagine possibilities for yourself and your identity,” she said.

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