The Need to Belong


Before the industrial revolution, humans lived in small groups that they were born into and had minimal interaction outside these groups for the duration of their lives.

Because humans were not great at surviving in the wild, we used our frontal lobes, communication skills and opposable thumbs to work together to build villages and castles that helped protect us from the outside elements, predators and other groups.

Humans realised that we were safer, more secure, and less vulnerable than we were alone by bonding and working together. But for the group to work, specific rules or social mores needed to be created and followed. Everyone had to contribute or play their role if they wanted to benefit from the increased resources and protection that the group provided.

People who didn’t fit in or do their bit were at risk of being kicked out of the group, where they would have to fend for themselves or face the world on their own. This typically led to an early and untimely death at the hands of dehydration, starvation, extreme weather, predatory animals or other humans.

Based on the above story, it makes sense why evolution favoured fitting in and getting along with others over being authentic to ourselves. A potentially hefty price to pay, especially if you were very different from what the group wanted you to be, but definitely worth it if it was a matter of life or death.

Fast forward to the 21st century

We suddenly live in a much more mobile world, where it is possible to meet and interact with more people in a single afternoon than our ancestors may have encountered in their entire lifetime.

Groups and social hierarchies still exist and are much more complicated than they have ever been in many ways. However, they are also more fluid, and people are now able to change their position in the hierarchy or even leave their group entirely or move to another country and start over again if they don’t get the benefits they would like from them.

Being excluded from groups or rejected by others is generally no longer a matter of life or death, especially once we become adults. So why does it still feel that way?

Since the industrial revolution, technology and society have changed so rapidly in the modern and post-modern world compared to how things were in the past that it has been impossible for evolution to keep up. For example, the amount of information in the world used to double about every century. Some now say it is every thirteen months, and IBM said it could one day be as quick as every 12 hours. We are, therefore, still genetically programmed to fit in rather than be our authentic selves, even when it isn’t in our best long-term interests.

We obey authority, even when it means causing harm to an innocent other (the infamous Stanley Milgram experiment):

We take on the roles that are given to us and can become cruel in the process (the infamous Robert Zimbardo prison experiment):

We also conform to the opinions of everyone else in the group, even when it is reasonably apparent that they are all wrong…

The Pressure to Conform

In the 1950s, Solomon Asch did a series of experiments looking at the power of social conformity. He brought male participants into the lab and asked them to be part of “a simple perceptual experiment”. They were first instructed to look at a series of three different sized straight black lines on a card — a short line (A), a long line (B), and a medium-length line ©.

He then randomly presented one of these three lines on cards for 18 trials and asked the participant and seven other individuals the line they saw— A, B or C.

Unbeknownst to the participant, the other seven individuals in the room who responded before him were confederates or actors in the experiment. For the first two trials, the confederates all gave the obviously correct answer, as would the participant, but on the third trial, and 11 out of the subsequent 15 trials, the confederates all gave the same incorrect answer.

How the participant answered on these incorrect trials indicated how much they had been affected by the influence of social conformity. Disturbingly, up to 75% of participants gave the same incorrect answer on at least one trial, with the majority experiencing a distortion of judgment over time, where they assumed that their perception must be wrong and the majority’s perception right. This was in sharp contrast to the results in the control group, where there was no pressure to conform, and the error rate was less than 1%, indicating that it was easy to determine which line was which.

Even with easy decisions, it is possible to begin to doubt ourselves quickly if what we believe goes against the opinions of the majority. We may also start to question our own perceptions and experiences. It’s, therefore, no wonder that so many people give up on what they may individually know or believe in so that they can fit in with the group. This doesn’t make it right, however. If who we are or what we think is different to the majority, what is the best thing to do?

The Possible Solutions

#1 — Be true to yourself, never be afraid to say anything and always stand up for what you believe in.

While this may seem like the obvious solution, it does appear to be too idealistic and too simplistic. Speaking up, especially to the wrong type of authority figure (boss, teacher, parent, government official), puts us at risk of being punished or ostracised from the group each time we do it. Fortunately, we have the right to protest and say most things that we want to here in Australia, but each group still has its rules and social mores, and not following them can lead to exclusion and isolation. Sometimes speaking up is preferable, but it always comes with considerable risk and potentially significant consequences or emotional pain. What is important is that we try to reflect on things when we have time and try to make up our minds on the issues we care about. By doing this, we can hopefully remain secure and sure about what we believe in and share our opinions in safe settings.

#2 — Don’t worry about the group and live the life that makes you happy by yourself.

As long as we have a place to live and an income for food, water and leisure activities, we might be able to get by okay with shutting most people out. This is the path that some people take after they have gone through significant traumatic events, especially in the context of relationships. Maybe the pain of the social exclusion would lessen if it was self-imposed too, and some jobs require very little interaction with others.

In reality, though, we are social creatures, and being so isolated from others would likely take its toll over time. It’s why solitary confinement is used as a form of punishment and as a deterrent in prisons. There is also endless amounts of research out there showing the beneficial aspects of social support for optimal physical and emotional health, especially after a traumatic physical or psychological event. Being around people that care about us and that we can talk to and share our thoughts and feelings with does seem to be required on some level.

#3 — Find the right group where you can be as close to your authentic self as possible and are not only accepted by the group but loved and appreciated for this.

The beauty of our flexible society and the world these days is that we can move if needed, change jobs, let go of old friends and partners if they are not right for us, and seek out new ones that are a better fit. But what should we look for in our friends? How do we know if the group is right for us? How do we figure out if it is likely to positively impact our physical and emotional well-being in the long run?

In her book ‘Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships’, Amy Banks suggests seeking out people who CARE. With these individuals, you feel:

C — calm. You feel safe and secure being around them, sharing yourself with them and opening up to them.

A — accepted. You feel like they wholeheartedly accept you for who you really are, and you feel the same way with them. You may not always agree with everything that the other person does, but you still appreciate them for who they are.

R — resonant. You get each other. You can see how the other person thinks and feels and can accurately reflect that back to them. You feel that you connect, click and are on the same wavelength.

E — energised. You feel energetic, motivated and maybe even inspired around each other. It is the opposite of a draining relationship.

If you currently don’t feel calm, accepted, resonant or energised with anyone, I highly recommend reading the book, as it suggests some strategies to help rewire your brain to make these types of relationships possible in time.

Otto Rank, a one-time disciple of Freud, believed that “life is an ongoing struggle between the desire for autonomy and union”. Both are important, and how much you choose to give up one for the other needs to be considered and determined at various points throughout our lives.

Although some sacrifices do seem necessary, I’d like to hope that these days we are much closer to being able to have the capacity to be both our authentic selves and to connect with others truly. We need to know ourselves and seek out the right people and groups to spend time with.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

11 thoughts on “The Need to Belong

  1. Evolution hasn’t answered the question about where the desire to survive comes from. Interesting question, but it usually ends with circular reasoning or a walk with God. If we were just atoms floating around, why should we care about what happens to them? I thought about this while writing my recent blog entry about creating inner-groups by using nicknames. We don’t like exclusion from the group. Like you say, there is a “need to belong.” It’s true!

  2. Your article strikes a very personal and painful chord in my life. Last night I gave my prayer for understanding my own feelings of isolation after a traumatic experience ( see my blog entry Cleaning the slate Part I) and it was answered this morning as I read your article. Thank you so much for bringing clarity to a sore subject. Can’t thank you enough.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post. The “struggle between the desire for autonomy and the desire for union,” feels very real. Although, I wonder if that struggle is based on anything real.

    You’ve termed the struggle as one of finding how “to be both our authentic selves and to truly connect with others.” But, what is an authentic self? If we’re referring to the ego, then that’s just an aspect of the total being isn’t it? It’s an image, an incomplete one, constructed by thought, shaped by others telling you what is acceptable and what isn’t.

    The desire to relate to others, however, is real. As you pointed out, we are social beings, and relationships are at the core of being human. That desire isn’t the product of thought, it is wired into our very makeup. I believe this desire to relate, and the relationships themselves, cause us to respond to what others tell us and shapes who we think we are i.e. our sense of self, the ego.

    But the world external to our mind is always changing. People are always signaling us on who we are. Our “self,” the product of thought, does not keep pace. Thus there is always a gap. Associated with that gap is the struggle. So long as the ego intermediates the world and our perception of it, we will feel apart from it. We will feel that we don’t fit in.

    We can nip this struggle in the bud if we meet the world as is and respond to it skillfully. Alan Watts compared skillful living to skillful sailing. The skill is not in trying to resist or control the current of the water or that of the wind, but in using the rudder and sail to harvest the power in the flow of the water and wind to guide the sailboat.

    I don’t know if all this makes sense. I hope it does.

  4. Great article. it’s such a fascinating thing, what people do as part of groups or nations. It can be good or bad of course, but it’s heartbreaking how so many dreadful things in history have happened like slavery or genocide, all because of people following a social norm or a leader, and seeing the ‘other’ as not human. I don’t think we have advanced much as a species really, just more technologically advanced. Interesting points you have made here.

  5. Great post, Damon! I like how you broke down the need to belong. It made me realize that those of us who are able to resist groupthink should be very proud of ourselves! And I appreciate the CARE acronym and book recommendation.

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