The Need to Belong

Human beings need one another. As our species was evolving on the African Savannah, our ability to remain connected with others gave us the ability to fend off hungry lions and packs of hyenas. As a result, our need for community and meaningful relationships is a defining aspect of our humanity.

Researchers Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary have posited a “belongingness hypothesis” arguing that the need to belong is central to who we are. In brief, their argument rests on eight points, briefly summarized here:

1) We form social bonds without being forced, and even under adverse circumstances. For example, infants bond with their care givers without understanding their environment or being able to evaluate risks and rewards.
2) We are reluctant to break bonds, even when a relationship includes significant distress or outright abuse.
3) As we bond with others, our thought patterns change to affiliate with that person or group, and our association becomes a part of our self-concept. Our identity includes our merging with others.
4) Our emotional well-being swings with our relationship status. Our relationships can be a source of joy and euphoria, particularly in newer relationships, and we can become despondent when our relationships are struggling.
5) Deprivation of relationship has negative health impacts on our physical and psychological well-being. For instance, lonely people have lower functioning immune responses compared to socially nourished people.
6) Even partial deprivation is painful. People who are in satisfying relationships suffer when removed from the partner or from regular interaction with a close group of friends.
7) This point is called “satiation and substitution.” We can only have a limited number of very close relationships, with the remainder being more informal and casual. Relating intimately with others takes time, energy and resources, and we tend to experience a “satiation point” at which we cannot take on more close connection. However, when a dear friendship ends, we do tend to take on another. This is not to say one person is the same as another, but we are resilient and in the aftermath of a painful loss we do tend to seek new relationships.
8 ) The final argument is an evolutionary perspective, in that humans around the world and through all of time have been born with the imperative to bond in order to survive the rigors of a predatory world.

Of course, all of us have varying degrees of need for intimacy, camaraderie, attachment and love. But in general, people need close, caring and emotionally significant connection with others. In the words of Baumeister and Leary, “it seems fair to conclude that human beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.”

(1) Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

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