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The need for: Belonging


Explanations > Needs > Belonging

 The deep need to belong| The limits to belonging | So what?


The deep need to belong

The evolutionary driver

Some species live largely alone, whilst others have learned that if you form a tribe, you can share out the work and hence live more safely. Homo sapiens, of course, is one of the latter, tribal species.

Living in the tribe does have its cost, however, as you have to abide by shared rules and cannot just do whatever you wish. Evolution has shown, however, that the benefits far outweigh these costs, and we are now pre-programmed with a deep need to belong that drives us towards forming and joining tribes.

There is a sequence of acknowledgement (recognizing the person), approval (evaluating the person) and acceptance before a person is admitted to a group and so achieve the need for belonging. With further approval they gain respect, esteem and consequent status, in which they gain power and consequent control.

Attachment and love

An infant starts out with an instinctive attachment to its mother. When taken away, there is a powerful sense of loss that makes the child cry out in seeking restoration of that close connection. Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980) developed his Attachment Theory to describe the power and effects of how we attach ourselves to others.

Love is a form of attachment and we seek to get others to love us just as we love them. This creates a strong two-way bond that sustains attachment and satisfies belonging needs.

A basic Maslow need

Belonging is one of the more basic needs in Maslow's Hierarchy, where it comes just above health and safety. This low level indicates how fundamental this need is. Being below esteem shows how we first want to join a group, then gain its esteem. Although 'belonging' needs include love and affection, we will often prefer to be in a low social position within a group than leave and try to find another group. 'Belonging' need is stronger than 'esteem' need. 

Social punishment

Social norms are a mechanism that are intended to convince people to act for the good of others rather than just selfishly. A common punishment for non-compliance is ostracization, where the transgressor is ejected from the group. This acts directly on their need to belong and is such a distressing thought for many that they conform in fear of this punishment more than in support of collaborative norms.

The limits to belonging

In the modern world there are many, many groups who want you to belong to them-- provided you are similar enough and can afford it, of course. Your interest, time and money are limited, so what do you do?

The hierarchy of belonging

Most people have a hierarchy of belonging that they will use when there is a conflict of interests between the various groups to which they belong 

For example, I belong to my family group first, then my immediate work group, then the larger company, then my country. It is not quite as simple as this and there are always exceptions and variations, but the principle is nevertheless useful.

A limited set of groups

In practice, the number of groups to which we can effectively belong is limited by time and the confusion and complexity of having to juggle too many priorities.

Most people will have a short list of around three to five major affiliations. Other groups are secondary and they will pay attention to them 'when they have the time.'

Individual taste

Spears et al (2009) found that whilst people like a majority to share their opinion, they prefer to be part of a minority in matters of taste. This indicates the identity tension between seeking both shared identity and individual identity. We want to both belong and also to be separate.

So what?

So understand what groups the other person belongs to, and how attached they are to them. Then either play to the values and needs of those groups, or act to weaken their ties to groups which oppose your purpose.

If you want to really influence someone, you must be in the same group as them. You can do this by joining one of their groups or having them join yours.

You can also promise inclusion or threaten expulsion from a group where you hold sway (so work to achieve a position of influence within your own groups). The threat of being ostracized will scare many people into compliance. This approach is used a great deal, often on a very subtle level.

See also

The Need for a Sense of Identity


Russell Spears, Naomi Ellemers, and Bertjan Doosje (2009). Strength in Numbers or Less Is More? A Matter of Opinion and a Question of Taste. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 8, 1099-1111


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