In the turbulent election season of 2016, my colleagues and I conducted a survey of law school students at a selective university to determine who felt most alienated on campus. The two groups who felt least like they belonged were black women and politically conservative white men. These two groups seem to fall at the farthest poles of our political discourse. Yet they shared a feeling: They felt like outsiders.
The defining feature of our era seems to be that few groups feel confident in their sense of belonging. The feeling of being different, a stranger in a strange land, and even a stranger in your own land, seems so common now that presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg proclaimed a “crisis of belonging.” But although we are fragmented by many forces, we can take little steps in our day-to-day interactions to foster connection.
A defeated need to belong goes some way toward explaining many of the problems that beleaguer our society now. About 1 in 5 Americans suffers from chronic loneliness, which is as destructive to our bodies as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. As Americans have become disconnected from their community and society, they have been stricken with what the economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case call “diseases of despair.” In 2017, they write, 158,000 Americans died either through a slow process of addiction to alcohol, painkillers, or other drugs or through suicide by gunshot or overdose—the “equivalent of three full 737 MAXs falling out of the sky every day, with no survivors.”
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Prolonged experiences of discrimination are another potent factor in the crisis of belonging. These activate genes that stimulate bodily inflammation, a biological response to adversity that, when chronic, is like “fertilizer for early death,” says Steve Cole, a pioneer of research linking social environments to gene expression.
If our lives are bereft of a feeling of connection, we can become vulnerable to appeals by groups that make the belonging they provide contingent on acceptance of views and behavior that don’t reflect our true values. Experimental research finds that after being excluded, people conform more to the judgments of peers who offer new sources of belonging, even when their judgments are patently wrong. Excluded people are also more prone to believing in conspiracy theories that ascribe complex social problems to malevolent actors working in secret.
Research by social psychologist Arie Kruglanski on extremist groups, such as white supremacist organizations, has revealed that a core motivation for joining them is to feel a sense of belonging, rather than any particular racist sentiment. This may help explain why hate crimes reached a 10-year high in the U.S. in 2019. Meanwhile, our politics have been corrupted by an Us-versus-Them mentality, stoked by the media and politicians, leading many to subscribe to ridiculous and even dangerous beliefs. And of course, the crisis of belonging was further inflamed by COVID pandemic and its disruption of social relations at work, school, and community.
These powerful societal factors can leave us feeling hopeless, but science suggests that each of us can combat them. How? The answer is surprisingly simple: By changing the situation we are in sometimes even in the smallest ways. Our ability to do so is like a superpower. What we do, think, and feel isn’t just driven by far-off, impersonal forces—or by our inherent personality, ability, and character—but also by what happens around us in the classroom or boardroom, at the dinner table or the bar. What happens in the blink of an eye, including the blink of an eye, can make a big difference. While we must work to change our institutions and laws for the better, we can all take little steps in our everyday interactions to foster connection. Even small moments of connections can have powerful results.
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Psychological experiments showing that brief reflections on our interconnectedness, such as imagining a loved one, reduce intergroup hostility. In a study by Greg Walton and me, college students were led to believe that they happened to share a birthday with a math major. They felt a stronger sense that they could belong in math and even worked harder on a math puzzle than did students who thought they had a different birthday. In another study by Kent Harber, volunteers were told to imagine they were wearing a heavy backpack and asked to judge the steepness of a hill before them. They saw the hill as less steep when they were with a friend rather than by themselves. And if they were alone, they saw the hill as less steep when they were simply asked to think about a good friend.
Sometimes the best way to foster belonging is to stop doing certain things.
Avoid using exclusionary language
Research shows that our everyday ways of talking can harm belonging. Stereotypical language is one example. In one line of research, phrases such as “We are a dominant engineering firm that boasts many leading clients,” common in job postings for male-dominated occupations, discouraged women from applying, compared with such phrasings as “We are a community of engineers who have effective relationships with many satisfied clients.” Because words like “dominant” are associated with masculinity, the ad caused women to question whether they would belong in the job.
Talk of raw talent, so common in American mythologies of success, can be off-putting to individuals uncertain of their belonging. Lin Bian, Andrei Cimpian and their colleagues presented men and women with an internship opportunity in one of various fields. For some, representatives of the company singled out raw “brilliance” as key to success. You had to be an “intellectual firecracker,” with a “sharp, penetrating mind.” For others, they emphasized “great focus and determination” or being “passionate about the job.” No matter the field, women expressed less interest in the internship and more anxiety about belonging there when the description emphasized brilliance. Men, meanwhile, expressed more interest and more confidence.
Avoid being authoritarian
We tend to think of authoritarians as arrogant and powerful political leaders. But more so than we like to admit, we can all be authoritarians in our day-to-day lives, assuming that “our way” is the “right way” and that those who disagree must be converted, vilified, or banished. Even when we are on the side of virtue, we win few hearts and minds with an authoritarian style. Research shows that trying to force people to change their views often backfires; people dismiss evidence and information contrary to their long-held beliefs. On the other hand, research by my colleague Michael Schwaebe and me shows that tactful approaches to expressing our views can work wonders. Just saying “I think” before we give our opinions makes us—and our adversaries—more open and curious about learning more from the other side.
Affirm each other—and yourself
We can also improve others’ feelings of belonging through the technique of self-affirmation. I don’t mean dole out vapid praise or flatter ourselves in the mirror, which research shows to be counterproductive. I mean that we should create opportunities, even small ones, for people to express who they are and what they value, and to feel valued. Contrary to popular wisdom, many self-affirmations take the form not of “I good, smart, or well liked,” but of “here is what I am committed to and why,” which “firms up” the self.
One self-affirmation technique that’s been widely tested is simple but powerful: Ask people to reflect on their most important values by writing briefly about them. In a series of studies conducted with my colleagues, we asked Black and Latino middle school students—who experience relatively more uncertainty about their belonging in school—to write about their most important values several times during the academic year, each time for just 10 minutes. One wrote, “My family and friends are so important to me. I am my real self around them. I can be silly, goofy, and weird and they don’t care, they accept me for who I am.”
Relative to their peers, these students earned better grades and the percentage who failed the course was cut in half. Several years later, they were 20% more likely to have been admitted to a four-year college. This practice has shown strong results under key conditions, including with women in business and science, female surgical residents, students who are the first in their families to attend college, and socially-disconnected white men.
There is a reason why virtually every culture has a protocol for politeness and why the esteemed sociologist Erving Goffman saw in our little rituals of respect similarities with the religious rituals almost all cultures perform to honor the sacred. Indeed, for a time in American culture, “Your child is so polite” was one of the highest compliments a parent could be given. Not interrupting, saying “please” and “thank you,” apologizing when we do harm, whether intended or not, and even if others seem oversensitive about the harm caused, are signs that we see other selves as belonging in the circle of those to whom we should show respect.
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We’re less likely to attend to be polite toward those we see as “other”—one reason there was a strict protocol in white antebellum South was to refrain from using signifiers like “sir or ma’am” in encounters with Black people. Recently, Jennifer Eberhardt and her colleagues looked at the body-camera videotapes of 981 police traffic stops. Analysis of the conversations revealed that officers were more polite with white drivers, saying “please” and “thank you” more and using formal titles “sir” and “ma’am” more frequently. Politeness isn’t just good for our belonging; it’s good for law and order.
In one carefully conducted experiment, when police pulled over drivers and followed a script that conveyed politeness, the drivers later reported higher trust and confidence in the police. The effects were especially strong among ethnic immigrants, who can often feel uncertain of their belonging in their new country and are understandably mistrustful of police. In another experiment, Jason Okonofua and his colleagues created a thirty-minute training module that encouraged parole officers to empower and affirm their parolees by building respectful relationships with them. Ten months later, fewer of their parolees had been arrested again, relative to the parolees of officers who had received a control version of the training. This is a small but hopeful step in a long road to creating better relationships between law enforcement and the public they serve.
These are just a few of the practices that have been demonstrated through rigorous research to foster belonging. Others include creating opportunities for people to work together in common purpose; providing critical feedback in a way that makes it clear that it comes from a belief in the recipient’s ability to reach a higher standard; establishing norms of inclusion through leaders who “show don’t tell” their commitment to diversity; and asking people questions about themselves to better understand their challenges and to convey that they are seen as a whole person and are genuinely valued.
We can all look for opportunities to create belonging even in the smallest corners of social life. A female director of a major Silicon Valley firm told me about her early days as she rose in the ranks of a large technology firm. She described one experience that she believed had made a big difference in her career. She was about to give a presentation to shareholders. It felt like a make-or-break moment in her career. She was well aware of the fact that she was one of only a few rising female leaders in the industry at the time, which amplified her stress and doubts about belonging. As she awaited her introduction, the CEO walked up to her, looked her in the eyes, and said, “You are changing this company.” Though only five words, they were powerful, she said.
We have much urgent work to do in building a society that is more inclusive, nurturing, and just for people. These small acts of caring can sometimes make a big difference for the well-being and thriving of those we extend them to. In any given encounter, on any day, we can all find ways to conjure some of the magic of making people feel they belong. We can make every situation a little bit better for ourselves and for the people with whom we share it.
Excerpted from Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides by Geoffrey L. Cohen. Copyright © 2022 by Geoffrey L. Cohen. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.