The Power of Social Belonging

In his final novel, Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about…You are not alone.’” Vonnegut’s thoughts nicely tap into a psychological theory called “the need to belong,” which proposes that people’s sense of social belonging, or their sense that they have good relationships with others, is a fundamental human need. That is, having solid social connections can be as important to human health and happiness as having food, water, and shelter. Indeed, there is research to support this idea, including the finding that having social relationships can increase your odds of survival by 50%. To put this in perspective, this effect is comparable to the effects of smoking and excessive drinking on mortality, suggesting that having quality social ties is vital to our lives.

Vonnegut’s quote also implies that there may be people who could benefit from being given a reminder that they belong in some way. Rather than just trusting Vonnegut’s hunch, we can look to science to see whether delivering a social belonging message can improve people’s lives in some way.

Two Stanford psychology professors, Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, tested the power of conveying this kind of “don’t worry, you belong” message to minority college freshmen. The researchers thought that African-American students, who may have more concerns about their sense of social belonging at school, may particularly benefit from a social-belonging intervention*.

Participants in the study received a one-time social-belonging intervention, where they were told that everyone (regardless of gender or ethnic background) experiences difficulties with feeling like they belong during the beginning of college and that these concerns tend to fade over time. Participants were then asked to write essays about how their own experiences reflected this idea, in order to further ingrain the message that it was perfectly normal to have doubts about “fitting in” and finding friends and that these doubts would disappear with time.

The researchers tracked participants’ grades throughout all of college in order to see whether their intervention had any effect. Amazingly, this one-time social-belonging intervention ended up having a significant effect on the participants’ grades. African-American students who didn’t receive the social belonging intervention saw no improvements in their grades over their college career, while African-American students who received the intervention showed significant improvements in their grades over time.

In addition to improvements in grades, the intervention also had an effect on students’ health and psychological well-being at the end of college (three years after they received the one-time intervention!). Compared to African-American students who didn’t receive the intervention, African-American students who received the social-belonging intervention reported being healthier, happier, and visiting doctors less frequently at the end of college.

These effects, of course, weren’t achieved magically – this study wasn’t conducted at Hogwarts, after all. Based on data they collected during the week after the intervention, the researchers concluded that their intervention worked because it allowed African-American students to reframe negative social events (e.g., being rejected by peers) in a way that wasn’t threatening to their sense of social belonging; these students could now have negative social experiences without thinking it meant they didn’t belong at their school or that people at their school didn’t like them. Essentially, the intervention seems to have improved minority students’ grades, health, and happiness because it caused a meaningful shift in how these students thought about themselves. By increasing the students’ confidence in their sense of social belonging at school, the research team’s intervention provided a buffer for the students when times got tough.

In other words, it looks like Vonnegut may have been right. Sometimes, people may just need to hear that they belong. That many others feel and think as they do. That they’re not alone.

 

*Indeed, the researchers also tested this social belonging intervention in European-American college freshmen, and the intervention did not have an effect on European-American students’ grades or health.