Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Science Behind Our Need to Belong

Insights into the history, present, and future of belonging research.

Key points

  • Most of the earlier findings around belonging haven't changed. People need to feel a sense of belonging.
  • Belonging researchers need greater agreement on terminology, measures, and definitions to create greater clarity for practice.
  • A new generation of belonging researchers should be encouraged to envision their work as having a far-reaching impact.

This contribution draws from a recent paper, "The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation" by Kelly-Ann et al. During a wide-ranging interview, Baumeister and Leary provided insights into the history, present, and future of belonging research.

Introduction

Belonging has been a hard construct for researchers to define and conceptualise because its meaning is often drawn from what predicts it or what outcomes emerge from experiencing it. It is well known that being part of something and feeling like you belong somewhere, such as in a group, feels good to most people. And while research on belonging took place before 1995, it didn't go much further than this.

However, in 1995, Baumeister and Leary’s landmark paper, “The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation,” firmly identified belonging as a universal human need, ingrained in our motivation as a species and stemming deeply from our ancestral roots. The paper resulted in a significant change in our understanding of belonging especially as it relates to our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

Loneliness, caring for an older population, and school violence are just some of the problems people face today. Research on belonging has played an important role in responding to these problems and offers great relevance to educational psychology. Belonging significantly impacts student wellbeing, achievement behaviour, and mental health, making it a critically important topic for study.

History

Researchers can use the need to belong to build human motivation and action theories. The human mind has a primary and almost universal desire to form and keep relationships with others. The need to belong may well be considered important and has been discussed alongside other human needs in the history of psychological research (e.g., Glasser/Maslow: food and water; Freud: sex and aggression).

Mark Leary’s identification of self-esteem as a key factor in people’s quest for belonging was a second important historical event in belonging research. Self-esteem can be an internal measure of how well someone fits in with others or how appealing they might be to other people. As a research construct, self-esteem has been battered by criticism over recent years and considered as just a sense of personal worth or value.

This view raised concerns that a focus on self-esteem breeds self-interest and individualism and, also, actually holds little worth (i.e., you can be a criminal with high self-esteem). However, for many educational researchers, self-esteem has an important place in school outcomes and student success. As it relates to belonging research, the constructs of self-esteem and belonging are richly entwined. And the well-documented advances in these two constructs spurred on by Leary’s work ensure that they will remain important and relevant for many years to come.

Present

Most of the earlier findings around belonging haven't changed. People need to feel a sense of belonging. In fact, Baumeister suggested that a sense of belonging may be even more important than having an intimate relationship. One area of belonging research calling for more attention, according to Baumeister and Leary, involves how the need for belonging differs greatly among people. People’s personal level of the need to belong can remarkably shape how motivated people are to join groups, catch up with friends/family, or engage in the school or workplace.

Baumeister and Leary also stressed the importance of defining terms. For belonging researchers, this means thinking carefully about what belonging means for their research. Does it mean feeling part of a group or something else? Their 1995 article was mainly about dyadic relationships, but if written today, Baumeister and Leary stated that the definition of belonging would be much broader. They used the word “belong,” which can imply being part of something.

But though you may not necessarily feel like you belong to your neighbour, you might feel instead like you ‘fit in.’ While Baumeister and Leary were unable to recall why they chose the word “belong,” the more clunky “need to be accepted and belong” may be clearer, as is “the desire for social connections with both people and people in a group.”

Belonging researchers also need greater agreement on terminology, measures, and definitions to create greater clarity around the implications of their findings for schools. They also need to improve how they communicate their findings to a broader audience.

Future

Even though belonging in educational systems has received considerable attention from researchers, studies have failed to investigate the developmental implications of belonging and how the quest for belonging differs across developmental and school stages. While, research on high school students dominate the literature, there are many differences between school belonging research in university vs secondary school vs elementary/primary school and these differences can be dependent on which discipline is doing the investigating. Scholars have much work to bridge these educational contexts and transdisciplinary understandings to belong.

Conclusion

While acknowledging the importance of belonging as a basic human need, it is hoped that this reflective account:

  • Clarifies some of the underlying assumptions about belonging,
  • Encourages the next generation of belonging researchers to envision their work having a far-reaching impact.
  • Opens up new ways of thinking about educational psychology's role in developing policies and practices centered on belonging.

References

Allen, KA., Gray, D.L., Baumeister, R.F. et al. The Need to Belong: a Deep Dive into the Origins, Implications, and Future of a Foundational Construct. Educ Psychol Rev (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-021-09633-6 Download here.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497

Acknowledgments and special thanks to Professor Roy Baumeister and Professor Mark Leary for their assistance in preparing this article for publication.

advertisement