Choose Your Friends Carefully: Avoid Guilt by Association

The Need to Belong: Avoid Choosing the Wrong Friends for the Right Reasons

Posted May 12, 2014

We live in a society filled with opportunities to join associations, clubs, and groups of every kind. Almost every website we visit offers us the opportunity to join some type of membership or email list.

We showcase our affiliations with lapel pins, sometimes selecting a different one each day depending on our schedule of meetings and events. Some people have drawers filled with pins and buttons showcasing the variety of groups to which they belong. Not all associations, however, are positive.

As a prosecutor, one of the things I see frequently is good people making bad decisions. This often involves seeking the wrong company for the right reasons. Prime examples of this include a young person choosing to run with the wrong crowd, or an adult joining the wrong type of organization, in order to satisfy a healthy desire we all share: the need to belong.

As different as we are, we all want to be part of a larger network. We want to be part of a group. The need to belong permeates all aspects of social and interpersonal behavior.[1] It can cultivate teamwork, prompt conformity to healthy social norms, and can inspire well-meaning individuals to join altruistic pursuits. Unfortunately, it can also lead to affiliation with the wrong types of people. 

This happens because sometimes, even unhealthy groups and associations look attractive. When a group is viewed as desirable, the drive to affiliate often includes accepting group characteristics as part of one’s self-concept, even if the group is a criminal community.[2]

In these cases, people can miss the warning signs that indicate the group is not as desirable as it appears. People are particularly likely to miss or misinterpret red flags when their need to belong is unsatisfied.  The unfulfilled desire to affiliate generates a positivity bias, causing people to view the behavior of others with a more positive spin than it deserves.[3]

I have seen this phenomenon play out in a variety of scenarios.  Here are a few.

Born to Belong: Validation by Association

The student who desperately desires to become part of the “in” crowd might allow herself to be taken advantage of by peers who can grant her such status by association—in exchange for doing their homework for them.  The co-worker who wants to be included in group lunches or after-work happy hours might be willing to cover a shift as a favor for those who routinely plan and invite others to attend such events.

In my world as a prosecutor, I see the desire to affiliate generate much darker associations, often leading to criminal behavior. It often stems from the validation people receive through association.

Many young men join gangs not to pursue their dream of participating in drive by shootings, but to gain a sense of belonging.  Young women might become involved with the wrong type of friends for similar reasons.  To share a counterintuitive example, research reveals that some young women, believe it or not, choose to prostitute themselves because their “street family” takes care of them, pays attention to them, and makes them feel cared for.[4]

People also want to belong to powerful groups.[5] This type of association can elevate self-esteem, or provide a sense of identity or distinctiveness.[6]  People who belong to powerful groups are viewed more favorably and believed to have more positive traits than people with less powerful associations.[7]

 The Attraction of the Mission and the Membership

It is not only criminal groups who prey upon the need to belong. Organizational recruiters of all types cater to this need.  Groups formerly known as cults,[8] for example, are notorious for “love bombing”—showering potential members with caring affirmations[9] that create a sense of security and belonging.[10] These types of groups can make members feel important, understood, valuable, and loved—sometimes for the first time in their lives. 

Political and ideological groups also attract members by making them feel important and valuable through emphasizing their rights, opinions, and viewpoints.  Working in an office building in the middle of a big city, I often see (and hear) the strength of these groups. The chanting can reach deafening proportions as the multitudes proceed through the downtown streets, often flanked with law enforcement escorts. 

What are they protesting?  Believe it or not, some of the participants aren’t sure. I know this because I have asked them. While most have a general idea of what their group stands for, some can’t articulate the point of the gathering, or what they are seeking to accomplish.  What they do know, is that marching and holding signs, chanting in front of TV cameras is empowering. They are emboldened through power in numbers, and pursuing a cause as part of a group.

Behind the Scenes: Spotting the Red Flags

How then, given the sense of affirmation and empowerment provided through satisfying the need to belong, can one avoid joining the wrong group for the right reasons?  Beyond the obvious opportunities to take advantage of the ease of online research, we can also remain attentive to the cues, both verbal and behavioral, used by recruiters.  Some are other-focused, selflessly seeking to encourage people to join the group for their own benefit, such as is the case with many religious groups.  Other recruiters embody the selfish pursuit of soliciting new members in order to boost the group’s membership numbers. 

Regarding lifestyle and associations, some groups hold open meetings, inviting the general public, while others seek to isolate their members.[11] It is probably not a newsflash to hear that secret agendas and missions are usually suspect, while legitimate organizations are transparent about their mission, membership, and their message.

The bottom line is that group membership can be both satisfying and inspiring, leading to healthy associations and positive change.  Making sure that clubs, groups, and other associations you and your family decide to join are as good as they look before you submit your membership application will help you join the right groups for the right reasons.

[1] Mark R. Leary and Ashley Batts Allen, “Belonging Motivation: Establishing, Maintaining, and Repairing Relational Value,” in Social Motivation, ed. by David Dunning (New York: Psychology Press, 2011), 37−55 (37-38).   Also see Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary, “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation,” Psychological Bulletin 117, no. 3 (1995): 497−529.

[2] Erica B. Slotter and Wendi L. Gardner, “The Dangers of Dating the ‘Bad Boy’ (or Girl): When Does Romantic Desire Encourage Us to Take on the Negative Qualities of Potential Partners,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48 (2012): 1173-1178 (1173), doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.05.007 (citing e.g. Mashek, Stuewig, Furukawa and Tangney, 2006).

[3] SoYon Rim, Kate E. Min, James S. Uleman, Tanya L. Chartrand, and Donal E. Carlston, “Seeing Others Through Rose-Colored Glasses: An Affiliation Goal and Positivity Bias in Implicit Trait Impressions,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49 (2013): 1204-1209 (1208), http://dx.doi.org/10/1016/j.jesp.2013.05.007.

[4] Susan McIntyre, “The Youngest Profession—The Oldest Oppression: A Study of Sex Work,” in Child Sexual Abuse and Adult Offenders: New Theory and Research, ed. by Christopher Bagley and Kanka Mallick (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), 159−192 (160).

[5] Kai Sassenberg, Kai J. Jonas, James Y. Shah, and Paige C. Brazy, “Why Some Groups Just Feel Better: The Regulatory Fit of Group Power,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92, no. 2 (2007): 249-267 (249), doi: 1-.1037/0022-3514.92.2.249.  Sassenberg et al. also note the phenomenon of individuals seeking to affiliate with groups of lower power. Sassenberg et al., “Why Some Groups Just Feel Better,” 249.

[6] Sassenberg et al., “Why Some Groups Just Feel Better,” 249 (citing Fein and Spencer, 1997; Gaertner, Sedikides, and Graetz, 1999, Tajfel and Turner, 1979). 

[7] Markus Brauer and Richard Y. Bourhis, “Social Power,” European Journal of Social Psychology 36 (2006): 601–616 (608-609).

[8] Also now commonly referred to as new religious movements.

[9] Peter C. Moore, Disarming the Secular Gods; How to Talk So Skeptics Will Listen (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 21.

[10] Raphael Aron, Cults, Terror, and Mind Control (Point Richmond: Bay Tree Publishing, LLC, 2009), 68.

[11] For example, unlike mainline churches, some cults isolate their membership from ideas contrary to cult teaching. Harry Hazel, The Power of Persuasion, 2nd ed., (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1989), 91.