Social Belonging – Beyond a simple emotion

If we look at the majority of psychological research on social belonging we see that it often is reduced to a minor type of emotion that bring a happy feeling when it is there and a sad feeling when it is absent. But over the last few decades we have discovered that social belonging is so much more, in fact, it could be argued that social belonging is the most important part of being human. Much of our knowledge in last couple decades has come from neuroscience which has tried to unlock our knowledge of the social brain.

Studies of our most intimate belonging such as individuals who are romantically in love, have found that love and need to intimately belong are just not mere emotions that can be controlled and manipulated they are basic human drives. The areas of the brain that are active when we are with or reflecting about our intimate partner are the same areas that regulate breathing, hunger, heart rate, and thirst. Indeed the need for intimate connection is a basic biological drive. We find similar findings with other sources of social belonging as well. In fact we are such social being that when we are doing an activity with another person, and are aware of that person and they are aware of us, our brains start to synchronize and mimic each other. This can be seen observing individuals on a first date. If you are a social voyeur like me you may have already done this but if you have not I encourage you to give it a try.

At a restaurant or bar sit and watch people who are meeting each other for the first time. If they like each other their bodies will first orient to each other. If there is a potential for a relationship watch the way they eat and interact, you will see them start to “parrot” each other. Their cups, forks, plates, body positions, breathing, facial expressions all will start mirror each other. While this is not conscious to the individuals it is very apparent to the outside observer. If you are at a place where there is dancing, watch the individuals dance with each other. They will after a few missteps start to partner dance with each other as if they are seasoned experts. Their steps will be in sync their body movements will move gracefully as one moveable object. We can observe the same thing in less intense relationships such as when friends get together or when a group becomes committed to an action. This may seem very negative to bring up at this moment, but even mob behaviors follow these similar synchronize patterns.

Additional evidence of the importance of social belonging is how much of our brain we commit to our social world. Scientist have always felt that the frontal cortex – more specifically – the pre-frontal cortex is what gives rise to human’s intellectual and analytical qualities. Indeed, it is what allows us to do math or read or look at a complex problem and provide several potential solutions. However, upon closer evaluation, very little area of the pre-frontal cortex actually is dedicated to this type of problem solving. Indeed the majority of our pre-frontal cortex becomes active when we are thinking of our social world. In fact, Dr. Lieberman a renowned Social Neuroscientist has coined the social system as the default network system. Not only does this system becomes active when we thinking of social relationships, it becomes active when we are told to think of nothing at all or to stop some type of math problem. The means that even when we are not thinking about our social world, we are thinking about our social world.

Studies of psychopaths, which are individuals who use others as if they were non-human and often take horrible advantage of others has shown damage to the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex acts as a regulator for our social behavior. Many of us have had that moment where we want to slap or hit a person in the face. I would almost guess that every human being will have this experience at least once in their life time. The difference between most people and psychopaths is that it is our prefrontal cortex that provide us with the ability to decide “no I am not going to do that because of XYZ”. This pathway that inhibits this impulse tends to be absent in psychopaths. Again providing evidence of our social brain.

So here is our evidence from our brain, what about our behaviors. Well we can see that our need to belong is a drive from human isolation experiments. We find that when a person is given everything they need to biologically survive: food, water, and shelter. When they are denied human contact their body starts to die as if it was starving or dying from thirst. This unfortunately has lead us to one of our most effective types of punishment which is social isolation. In our not so distant past, being with others was a means of survival and being kicked out of a community was almost a guaranteed death sentence. Hence, when people “acted out” they were simply kicked out of the village. Because during this time it was believed that people acted evil, because they were possessed by demons, when kicked out of the village into the woods, this is where the myth of the haunted forest outside the village has its origins. These myths were also used to make sure no one left the village as well, a form of double edged social control sword.

Into modern times, our prison systems use isolation for behavior management. Unfortunately the missing part of this is whenever you “cage” a human being and isolate them from others, humans become aggressive and violent – does not matter if you are a criminal or a clergy – put someone in captivity and they will become the worse version of them. Hence in these conditions the only means of social control become the threat or use of more aggressive means such as weapons. Indeed it is interesting when we look at our prison system. We have spent centuries using the punishment method – understand this logic – punish someone, all sudden they will realize what they did wrong and never do it again. That like taking a fish out of water and expecting it to learn how to breath like humans do. Instead, we find that in some countries and a few in the United States that use social connection as a basis of their correction efforts they do not have the recidivism or over crowding that United States system have. Indeed countries with the lowest criminal recidivism rates are ones where the inmates are treated like humans and not caged animals.

If you think about the happiest moments in our lives they rarely happen when we are alone. They always involve someone else. Indeed if we think about the most happy events they tend to represent the height of human connection. Weddings, graduations, birthdays, a work promotion, buying a house, etc etc all are intensely social events. Some the saddest moments in our lives tend to be when we have the threat of losing someone or the actual loss of someone. Even couples who have amicable divorces experience loneliness and sadness. The loss of a job is a loss of identity and social connection. The loss of a loved one. In our modern time forgetting one’s smartphone at home when going to work can bring some people so much pain they rather risk being fired at work, and go back home to get their phone. The smartphone is a social device, indeed it is our social outsourcing partner. It allows us to connect at a distance, it makes sure we don’t forget our social obligations. These outsourcing devises have become so integral in our need for social connection and belonging, we have had to ban them when our cognitive and thinking resources should be else where such as when we are driving. Bottom line everything that brings us pleasure and pain our social in nature. When that pain becomes too much we will try to seek out non-social means to alleviates them such as using drugs, hoarding behaviors, become obsessed with non-human objects, become materialistic, and in some cases act out towards the social order.

Beyond biology and behavior there are also psychological and emotional aspects of belonging. Susan Fiske identified four psychological motives for belonging: understanding, control, self-enhancement, and trusting. Understanding and control are relatively cognitive and rational processes and within our self-concept model would be evaluated through self-awareness. Self-enhancement and trusting are relatively emotionally/affective based and are more susceptible to irrational thinking and are evaluated more by the self-esteem processes in the self-concept model.

Understanding is our need to have a shared experience and make a situation predictable. Controlling is our need to feel we understand why something happened and what the outcome would should be. When I explained this to my students, I often use the example of asking the students what they would do if I jumped on a table and started to crazy dance. Then I ask the students what would they do? The usual answer is “think you are crazy and just lost it”. Then I explained, what you most likely to do is within the first six seconds you would look to the right then look to the left, and pay attention to other’s reaction. Why? because what they are looking for is (1) am I experiencing the same thing everyone else is (understanding), and (2) what should our reaction be (controlling).

The two more emotional/affective based needs for belonging are self-enhancement and trusting. I am going to start with trusting, because this is not the “normal” type of trust we usually associate with this word. The “normal” trust is when we have a reciprocal relationship with someone and we have this feeling that if we get stuck they be there to help. This type of trust is usually developed in infancy. When baby cries, mom comes and feeds baby, baby is satisfied smiles, mom smiles back, and they have that reciprocal positive emotion assuring next time the baby cries mom will return. While this is a important type of trust and necessary for the development of healthy relationships, the type of trust we are talking about here is the need to see other a benign and non-threatening. In any social situation either consciously or unconsciously the first thing we do is scan the room for threats. Once we determine where is safe and where is threatening, this is when we determine where we will sit and who we will sit with. This is this type of trust. As I said though this is not always rationally based. For example I am not a biker and my only exposure to bikers is what I have seen on T.V. and so walking into a biker bar would be very threatening to me and I probably leave promptly.

In that same vein there are people who find individuals who commit crimes as more safe than individuals who do not commit crimes. This is not rationally based either, and can be seen by looking at research on adopting children out of the foster care system when the child is older than ten years old. If you talk to these children who want to be adopted many report wanting the safe and loving environment normally associated with happy and healthy children and families. Yet when put in that environment greater than 90% will return to their family of origins when they turn 18. Most reporting they did so because they felt more comfortable and safe, even though it is actually can be more dangerous and risky.

Self-enhancement is the need to see one’s self worthy and improvable. But the only reliable source on this is our social world and the feedback it provides. While this may seem simple it is not, as I stated this can be lead a stray as well and trusting. For example a child who is labeled as bad and is constantly told they are a bad child on a rational level you would think that under self-enhancement their motivation would be to become a “good child”, so bringing their behaviors to light should motivate the child not to engage in those behaviors. If you thought that I would encourage you to read the sections on identity again. Who we are like and who best fits our behaviors is the identity we take on in our personal and social world. Therefore the positive motivation for a “bad child” is not to become a “good child” no rather it is to become the baddest and worst child they can be. This allows them to have congruency between their behavior and what people tell them they are in this world. And I hope from our discussion on incarceration you cannot punish someone into being good. Again what makes these difference in evaluation: the social situation a person is raised in and is currently experiencing. What happens when we do not meet our belonging needs? This is where we are heading – into the world of loneliness.

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