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How the Need to Belong Both Helps and Hurts Us

Sometimes the price of acceptance is too high.

Key points

  • Research suggests that social belonging is a fundamental psychological need.
  • The need to belong can increase empathic accuracy, cooperation, and performance.
  • However, it can also lead to self-silencing, health risks, and conformity to harmful behavior.
Huy Chien Tran / Pexels
Source: Huy Chien Tran / Pexels

Feeling socially connected and included is considered by psychologists to be a fundamental human need, one that is rooted in our evolutionary history, where group membership was essential for survival. This impulse to connect can enrich our social lives, but it can also come at a cost, especially when the conditions of social acceptance are at odds with our values, well-being, or safety.

Belonging: Both Positive and Negative Consequences

On the positive side, the need to belong can make us more socially attuned. Research has found that when this need is front and center in people’s minds, they’re better at reading emotions in other people’s facial expressions and vocal tones, an indicator of empathic accuracy. They also more easily take others’ perspectives and remember information about them.

Belonging Can Override Our Judgments

But focusing on others’ feelings to gain acceptance can sometimes come at the expense of one’s own. For example, in studies of adolescents and young adults in dating contexts, those who were more concerned with avoiding rejection were more likely to silence their feelings to avoid losing a relationship and to suppress their true opinions and tastes to align more closely with those of a potential partner.

Another positive side of the need to belong is that it can inspire us to put our best foot forward. In one study, people who were left out of a game went on to work harder on a collaborative project with the people who had excluded them, presumably as a way to demonstrate their value to the group.

Some of the earliest social psychology experiments ever conducted found that the mere presence of other people can motivate people to perform better on various tasks, at least when they see it as an opportunity to do well and impress others.

The desire to impress others can also get us into trouble, though. Research has found that health-risk behaviors are sometimes motivated by a desire to come across as fun, adventurous, or fearless and thereby gain acceptance and status in a group. In a study of college students, a majority said they had engaged in at least one risky behavior in an attempt to make a good impression on their peers.

Belonging May Not Be Worth It

This included things like heavy drinking, drug use, reckless driving, physical fighting, and dangerous stunts. It’s not just young people who are worried about the impressions they make; older adults can make health-compromising decisions for social reasons too.

The need to belong can also increase conformity, or the tendency to act according to a group’s social norms. When norms encourage positive behaviors like kindness and generosity, conformity isn’t necessarily a bad thing: For example, a threat of exclusion can make people more likely to follow the social norm of cooperation rather than prioritizing self-interest.

But social norms are not always prosocial. Some norms favor harmful behavior like bullying, hazing, discrimination, or violence. Research suggests that group members may feel pressure to follow harmful group norms, especially those that are strongly promoted by the group. Even when people privately question a norm, they might look for ways to rationalize it and convince themselves it’s okay, rather than risk being ostracized.

In summary, the need to belong can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it drives us to seek out and maintain meaningful social bonds, and it’s hard to imagine society functioning without it. On the other hand, it's such a powerful motivator that it can override our judgments about what is morally right or healthy, leading us into situations we’re not comfortable with.

As such a basic part of human nature, this need is hard to escape. But we can make choices about how we want to fulfill it and recognize that some forms of belonging may not be worth the cost.


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