The Need to Belong makes us Human

“All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” The Beatles

These days, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time.” — Sherry Turtle

Last week I published “Expectation Failure is a 21st Century Pandemic” ( I thought it was a clever and erudit piece about the widespread use of mobile phones creating so much new information so quickly that it’s overwhelming us. I included all kinds of clever phrases like exponential change and expectation failure. I even quoted Yeats from his famous poem, “The Second Coming” to describe how dire our current state is.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

I thought I was so clever. Of course I couldn’t have done without a little Shakespeare so I went for the “The Tempest” and found “what’s past is prologue”, perfect, I thought.

The key evidence I submitted throughout the piece was the extraordinary growth in the use of mobile phones and especially smart phones that now “provide access to information of all kinds to all kinds of people that never had access to information before.”

I drove out this morning to get some gas and items at the local grocery store and saw something like the following picture. I don’t mean to say anything nasty about what looks like a perfectly lovely family out to get something to eat but most reading this piece will get the point.

What I actually saw were dozens of people with a mobile phone pressed against their face while engaged in things that likely didn’t concern whoever was on the other end of their phone connection. They were everywhere, at the gas station, in the grocery store, in almost every vehicle I passed going and coming home.

My thoughts were indeed not about a lovely family all using their mobile phones, like the one above, they were more like those of phone zombies in the following picture.

I realized then that dramatically increasing mobile phone use has not made us great consumers of information. I couldn’t resist jumping to the story line so frequently used after the last election, that increasing social media use has made us hostages to mental stimulants that mostly confirm biases we already hold. According to the “confirmation bias” story, we don’t use mobile phones to get new information. We use them to confirm information we already possess and to which we are attracted.

Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. It’s a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

Confirmation bias has been described as an internal “yes man”, echoing back a person’s beliefs like Charles Dickens’ fictional character Uriah Heep in his novel “David Copperfield”. Heep is notable for his cloying humility, obsequiousness, and insincerity, making frequent references to his own “‘umbleness”.

As I thought more about confirmation bias I couldn’t help but think of something that has always interested me and that is, what appeared to be the fundamental insecurity of human beings. I spent a great deal of my professional life working in relatively high positions in both government and corporations and was always amazed at how insecure most people, with whom I worked, were. From my vantage point most people were always working to find-out what others thought or believed and when they were satisfied they had found that out they invariably adopted what they thought was the most popular point of view. Most of the time that popular point of view was likely at variance from their own thinking or belief. I guess that behavior could have been described as a type of proactive confirmation bias but it seemed like something more.

Perhaps more important than confirmation bias, I recently discovered, is the fundamental characteristic of humans as highly social beings. We like to be surrounded by friends and share our personal experiences with others. The recent appearance of various social networking tools, and their adoption at a virtually explosive rate, nicely illustrate the strong and fundamental human desire for social belonging and interpersonal exchange. Psychologists are now telling us “We are, so to speak, biologically hard-wired for interacting with others, and are thus said to be endowed with a “social brain” as illustrated by Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

In fact Harvard professor and social biologist E.O. Wilson explains that humans and certain insects are the planet’s ­“eusocial” species — the only species that form communities that contain multiple generations and where, as part of a division of labor, community members sometimes perform altruistic acts for the benefit of others.

The obvious benefits of the evolution of our social brain are that humans are, today, equipped with a highly sophisticated social processing machine that enables us to engage in complex social interactions, and to maintain relationships with a great number of different individuals as well as groups. Our brains are further wired in a way that we experience reward during mutual social interactions, and feel sensations similar to physical pain when we are socially rejected or disapproved. It therefore looks like evolution has provided us with the perfect hardware for living in a world that is becoming, at least virtually, more crowded.

“It’s the imagination which empowers Homo Sapiens to cooperate in such large groups. As long as many people believe in the same idea, they can cooperate together.”

“all of the stories we have stored in our imaginations, to be able to live together in an orderly fashion. Even the modern economy is based on fictional entities: money, companies, an employee’s salary”. — Yuval Harari, Sapiens

However, some social skills can only be learned by means of peer activities during adolescence, and throughout this period parents still have important protective and sheltering roles to play. Becoming social has made us who we are today. Evolution has provided us with the best tools possible for successfully engaging in social interactions.

According to a landmark paper by psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary human beings are strongly motivated to have relationships because of a fundamental “need to belong.” The “belongingness hypothesis” states that people have a basic psychological need to feel closely connected to others, and that caring, affectionate bonds from close relationships are a major part of human behavior. According to Baumeister & Leary, satisfying the need to belong requires

  1. frequent, positive interactions with the same individuals, and
  2. engaging in these interactions within a framework of long-term, stable care and concern.

human beings are “naturally driven toward establishing and sustaining belongingness…The need to belong goes beyond the need for superficial social ties or sexual interactions; it is a need for meaningful, profound bonding. A sense of belongingness is crucial to our well-being. The fear of losing something that in some sense belongs to you is as significant as the hope of gaining some kind of meaningful togetherness.

The “belongingness hypothesis” states that people have a basic psychological need to feel closely connected to others, and that caring, affectionate bonds from close relationships are a major part of human behavior. So clearly all of my attempts at cleverness and eruditeness in my earlier piece should have been toned-down a bit. It seems so obvious to me now that our efforts to acquire and use information technology is not to acquire “information” or even to confirm biases we may have. It’s not that sophisticated. It’s simply to satisfy our need to belong and be human.

Our need to belong and be human not only explains for me why Mark Zuckerberg and his social media colleagues have been so successful. It also explains why the great novelists who told compelling stories about relationships, like Tolstoy, Hemingway and Fitzgerald were also so successful, long before the Internet. We may want to think of Facebook as a real time version of War and Peace or The Great Gatsby being told and retold millions of times a day.




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