Why Elon Musk's fans will never cancel him, explained by an organizational psychology professor

  • Human beings have an innate need and desire to feel a sense of belonging to a special group.
  • As a result, we tend to be more forgiving of those we identify with — sometimes to the point of irrationality.
  • Organizational psychology professor Dominic Packer told Business Insider this theory helps explain why leaders like Elon Musk enjoy an especially devoted following.
  • Industry analysts credit Musk's legions of self-identified "True Believers" with boosting Tesla's market valuation beyond the level justified by the company's fundamentals.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Most shareholders would punish a CEO who said his company's share price is "too high."

Then again, Elon Musk isn't like other CEOs, nor his acolytes like traditional investors.

In the past decade, the fully electric Tesla ceator's fans have assumed the mantel of most exuberant auto industry customers — a position previously held by Prius shoppers willing to fork out a premium for an eco-conscious ride.

Buoyed by this army of self-identified "True Believers," Tesla is riding high on vehicle sales and share price, making it the most valuable automaker in the world.

But many analysts say Tesla's price is detached from the reality of the company's fundamentals, and strangely immune to the volatile behavior of eccentric CEO Musk, like his taunting of the Securities Exchange Commission, smoking marijuana with a podcast host, and pushing misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

To shed light on why Musk and Tesla seem especially immune to controversies that have sunk many other CEOs and their brands, Business Insider spoke with Professor Dominic Packer, an organizational psychologist who specializes in group behavior at Lehigh University.

"He's definitely become a brand unto himself," Packer said. "There's definitely this sort of hardcore group of people who really like him, enjoy him, and find something about that connection to be important."

Needing to feel a sense of belonging

Humans are fundamentally social creatures, and one of our core emotional needs is to feel a sense of belonging.

But, Packer said, "as much as we want to belong, we also want to feel special and unique, and one way you can do that is by belonging very deeply to unusual groups."

A widely accepted concept known as the "optimal distinctiveness theory" models how individuals balance this desire not just to be different, but the same kind of different, as a particular group of people.

The theory was originally advanced by social psychologist Marilynn Brewer (who also happened to be Packer's post-doctoral adviser), and has helped explain why teenagers are attracted to punk or goth fashion or the conspicuous conservationism of Prius loyalists.

"That hyper-distinctiveness expands out and gives you a sense of connection to everyone else who's into it, and every time you see another Tesla driver, you're like, 'Yeah, right on!' That's a connection," Packer said.

"But also, you're different from every other car on the road, and that's pretty awesome," he added. "People are willing to pay for that."

Forming a goal-oriented alliance

Part of the attraction of Telsa — as with the Prius before it — is how the car embodies a vision for an electrified future, which unites many subgroups around a common goal.

With Musk, Packer says, these groups have someone whose wealth, inventiveness, and appetite for risk gives him "enormous potential" to achieve their vision.

"And if he achieves those goals, they'll forgive more or less anything else," he said.

Bonding over a common enemy

Some of these episodes point to a darker motivation that forms a segment of his following, who don't just shrug off Musk's anti-establishment behavior — they rejoice in it.

"People enjoy poking fun at the authorities and enjoy a bit of nonconventional behavior, especially if it seems to offend the people they think are overly fussy," Packer said.

Members of these groups tend to be less interested in working toward a common goal than with tearing down whoever they think is against them, especially when they feel like their leader — and thereby their identity — is threatened.

And Musk certainly benefits from an army of internet vigilantes ready to leap to his defense at a moment's notice.

Packer points out that these groups don't necessarily start out with hostile intent, but toxic behaviors by influential members can quickly spread to new supporters.

"They develop a sort of normative style of communication, which is hyper-aggressive and confrontational, and then new supporters pick it up because that's just what that community does," Packer said.

Taken together, these oppositional and aspirational followers create the distinctive brand identity that propels Musk and Tesla's logic-defying success.

In other words, don't expect the Tesla party to end any time soon.

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