"Who do you know here?"
Have you ever felt excluded? Or – in certain situations – that you don't quite "belong?"
Maybe your significant other dragged you to a party or professional event where you knew few people, and among those you met, you had very little in common. On a foreign vacation, you may have ended up in a small town where no one spoke your language or looked like you, and you felt a bit like an alien. Or you walked into an expensive store you knew you couldn't afford. You felt a powerful force within you: I am an outsider, people are looking at me funny, I don't belong here.
What is this force? This anxiety to "fit in?" We like to think of ourselves as so self-sufficient, unique, and independent, but as soon as we're excluded and without a group, we feel lonely and exposed – almost as if a piece of us is missing.
That's because the innate desire to belong – to a group, team, family, organization, or club – is extremely powerful, a habit left over from our evolutionary past as tribal hunter-gatherers. When this desire goes unfulfilled for some reason, we must struggle forward without one of our deeply human needs.
We develop the need for social acceptance when we are just babies, depending on direct eye contact with our mother to validate our existence. We look to her face to sense her mood and intentions, which in turn impacts how we feel. We soon learn that eye contact and interactions with others strengthen and structure our identity and helps define who we are. As hikers stranded alone in the wild or prisoners penned in solitary confinement can attest: lack of eye contact from others, social isolation, and absence of social validation is completely maddening. It literally dissolves the identity and can make one feel invisible and nonexistent.
Because the need to belong is so prevalent, we can examine its consequences in many different stages and facets of life. In college, the budding cliques and friend groups of high school solidify into more formalized tribes. Fraternities and sororities, providing structured social belonging for students away from home for the first time, are the best example. They are decidedly exclusive social groups. If you ever tried to get into a fraternity party in college, you were probably asked the notorious question right at the door: "who do you know here?" The question could be re-stated more bluntly: do you belong to our tribe?
Are you one of us?
In the working world, tribes take on a veneer of authority, but at a deeper level, they truly exist to facilitate the same human need to belong. Golf and yacht clubs, professional societies, unions, and political parties are all tribal in nature. Their members often dress similarly, have similar political or religious beliefs, or belong to similar socioeconomic classes. In large corporations or organizations of more than a few hundred people, sub-groups and factions always form, each with their own peculiar culture and working style. If you've ever joined a new company or team, you were instantly aware of how this group seemed to communicate and cooperate in a totally unfamiliar way, almost speaking in a secret language that you had to quickly learn.
The groups we form are ultimately responsible for some of the greatest aspects of human nature. Groups of coordinated people have landed on the Moon, discovered new medicines, and created beautiful art and music. Have you ever attended a massive concert or sporting event and grew absorbed in the group spirit? That is another overwhelmingly positive benefit to living with the innately human need to belong.
In the 19th century, the sociologist Emile Durkheim analyzed data on suicide rates in Europe to determine who was most likely to commit suicide. He noticed that individuals with less social constraints – those that were single, without children, and members of less communal religions – were more likely to take their lives. He concluded that we need social obligations and the constraints of a social group to deliver fulfillment in our lives.
Decades later, research continues to confirm Durkheim's study. Jonathan Haidt notes that, "having strong social relationships strengthens the immune system, extends life (more than does quitting smoking), speeds recovery from surgery, and reduces the risks of depression and anxiety disorders." (1)
The pressure to belong to a group and the dread we feel when we are left out: these are powerful forces we may try to ignore or repress. But they are deeply human, part of our programming, always reminding us that we shouldn't always be pushing through life alone.
"We need to interact and intertwine with others; we need the give and the take; we need to belong."
– Jonathan Haidt
(1) The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (p. 133)