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Why belonging is critical to human flourishing—Stanford professor Geoffrey Cohen breaks down the science of creating connections

Podcast & Video

This episode features host Sean Speer in conversation with Stanford University professor Geoffrey Cohen about his fascinating new book, Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides, which he describes as “a hitchhiker’s guide to modern social life.”

They discuss the problems of polarization and loneliness and why belonging is key to a sense of fulfillment.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Stanford University Professor Geoffery Cohen, who’s a leading expert on the question of belonging and how it manifests itself in school work, politics, communities, and relationships. His latest book, Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides, applies his path-breaking research to political polarization and the social fraying that we’re witnessing in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere. Geoffery, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

GEOFFERY COHEN: Thank you so much for having me here. It is a pleasure to be with you.

SEAN SPEER: Let me start with what may seem like a basic question, but my sense is there’s a lot of complexity embedded in it. What is belonging? And how did you come to study it?

GEOFFERY COHEN: Well, belonging is a somewhat difficult thing to describe. It’s almost like a via negativa. It’s easier to describe the opposite; the sense that we have when we don’t fit in and we’re not accepted. Marina Keegan—I bumped into this quote, she was a Yale undergraduate who was a writer and she tragically died in a traffic accident shortly after graduation—she encapsulated a great way to define belonging. It’s not actually one that I found in the academic textbooks, but I really liked the way she put it. In one of her last blogs, she wrote, “there needs to be a word for the opposite of loneliness.” And as she put it, it’s not really love. And it’s not really community. It’s that sense that there are people in it together. Even an abundance of people. I think that really beautifully captures the sense of belonging.

I came to study it somewhat serendipitously. I’ve always been interested in the difference between being an outsider and an insider. Being a shy kid, being Jewish, there are often these contexts where I felt like I didn’t quite feel like I was on the inside for one reason or another. I would be wondering, “is it something about me, is it something about the situation?” So there’s a kind of personal element to it. I think in especially major transitions, for instance, to my first job, there was an acute sense of not really belonging there. Then the final serendipitous bit of influence was working with Claude Steele, my mentor, who was a powerful influence on me. He studied the various ways in which stereotypes can send subtle and not-so-subtle signals that you don’t belong and, and the powerful consequences of that.

SEAN SPEER: Based on your research, is a sense of belonging more or less common today than it has been in the past? And what are we able to discern about belonging across different cultures or countries? In other words, Geoffrey, are certain people or places more or less predisposed to belonging?

GEOFFERY COHEN: I think the places where belonging is most under siege are the secular individualistic societies such as the United States, such as Canada; the Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic, what’s been called “weird cultures”, where I believe that these cultures, though they have many, many assets, they often undervalue the importance of connection.

I’m reading a beautiful book by the American Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, where he describes how in some cultures, such as the one he grew up in India, there is a sense of connection and a reality of connection all around you. If you have to leave you can have people to support you and your family and your kids as you go away, people drop by spontaneously to connect and interact and check in on how you’re doing. I believe in some cultures, such as the ones we’re in now in Canada and in the United States, there is an increasing intensity to what Pete Buttigieg here in America, one of the American presidential candidates, called “a crisis of belonging”, and it arises from various forces. So many forces, but one in particular, I think, is our undervaluing of connection and the fact that we’ve erected institutions in situations that reflect that undervaluing.

SEAN SPEER: You write in the book that: “A sense of belonging isn’t just a byproduct of success, but a condition for it in school, work, homes, healthcare settings, negotiations, politics, community policing, and virtually every domain in which humans deal with other humans.” It seems to me it begs the question, why is belonging so important?

GEOFFERY COHEN: Well, that’s partly an evolutionary story. As human beings, we really do need each other. You just cannot go it alone. Physically, we’re hopeless, especially as infants, right? You know, I’ve had children. I don’t know if you’ve had children of your own but it was amazing to me. I mean, I knew this, but you know, they come into the world helpless with an inability even to distinguish danger from safety in many cases. So that’s very different from other animals, like a baby giraffe that enters the world walking around. So we need people to protect and educate us. But also as a species, we’re fairly weak, we’re fairly vulnerable by ourselves. As a result, we’ve evolved a biological system. Our biological system has evolved to alert us to when we are alone, and that’s one of the most powerful signals our central nervous system can send to our biology: “You are alone.” Which puts us on alert in this kind of fight or flight state. And there’s a whole cascade of biological reactions that are associated with that, as in the case of chronic loneliness which can be devastating.

SEAN SPEER: If belonging is a key to success, as you’ve outlined, is belonging a skill that someone can develop? Maybe to put it differently, are there certain traits or characteristics associated with belonging that one can cultivate?

GEOFFERY COHEN: Oh, yeah, that’s a great question, Sean. I do think so. One of the reasons I got into my field of social psychology was because it was useful. It’s a useful science. I think, unlike a lot of other social sciences that focus on documenting problems and understanding their causal basis, social psychology offers concrete strategies. It comes out of the forefather of our field, Kurt Lewin, who during another vexing time in our history, World War Two, really canonized the field of social psychology as a science of human potential. His whole idea was that we can change situations right here, right now, even down to the level of the encounter, to make them go better and bring out our better selves.

So I do believe, and one of the reasons I study this stuff is because there are many things we can do day to day, to cultivate a sense of belonging in ourselves and especially in others, as educators, managers, and teachers. And, of course, while we’re all working towards institutional and systemic change, changing our institutions, changing our laws, there’s still a way in which we just have to deal with the hand we’re dealt in our day-to-day encounters. So many of our encounters are across lines of difference across fault lines, working with people from under-resourced and marginalized backgrounds. And in those kinds of circumstances, I really do believe we have a kind of superpower, we can generate belonging, even, I’m gonna say something very obvious but actually very important, by being simply polite. Saying please, saying thank you.

I was reading Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste. And one of the things that stuck with me was the fact that in the old antebellum South, they had strong protocols for not being polite toward Black people. That was a way you conveyed a lack of dignity. And to this day, in encounters between whites and Blacks there is often less politeness than there is between whites with whites. Jennifer Eberhardt documents this even with police officers stopping black versus white drivers. The officers are in subtle and not-so-subtle ways less polite. They say please and thank you much less and they’re more informal with the Black drivers.

So that might seem like a small thing. But, actually, research suggests that when we feel treated impolitely or disrespectfully or unfairly, it shakes us up and we disengage, and we tend to feel less of a commitment to the person who’s treating us that way. We tend to take that treatment as evidence of the legitimacy of the organization that the other person stands for. So in Jennifer’s research, being treated impolitely by an officer is associated with feeling like the police are less of a legitimate presence in my community. So that’s just one thing: please and thank you. These are little rituals in which we convey the sacredness of another person’s self. But there’s a suite of other strategies, some less obvious than others, that really in the right time and place can change your life.

SEAN SPEER: What a profound answer, Geoffrey. The sense that the way we encounter the world on a day-to-day basis and that some of these behaviours that we don’t even think about in the moment can have this profound cumulative effect on others around us.

If I can stay on the topic of the cumulative effects of belonging, or in this case, a lack of belonging, what are the emotional, psychological, and even physical effects that those who feel like they don’t belong can encounter?

GEOFFERY COHEN: I will put it in one word: pain. And I’m borrowing that idea from other researchers, such as Kip Williams, Matt Lieberman, Naomi Eisenberg, among many others, who have shown that the experience of exclusion, even brief, is much like the experience of physical pain. And in fact, it quote lights up regions in the central nervous system that are associated with the processing of physical pain. In fact, Lieberman and Eisenberg find that taking certain kinds of painkiller medications that work in the central nervous system, such as Tylenol, blunt the effect of exclusion. So that is how I would put it. It’s painful. Exclusion is literally like being physically well, I was gonna say assaulted, that’s perhaps too strong a word depending on how chronic it is, but mortified is perhaps a better word. It’s a kind of little social death.

SEAN SPEER: Is there a life cycle dynamic to the need for belonging? Do people, in other words, need more or less belonging at different stages of their lives?

GEOFFERY COHEN: That’s a great question. I think so. I would say I would put ages zero to two up there. Research in the middle of the 20th century by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth really shook our understanding of human nature by demonstrating that early attachment is necessary for the healthy adjustment of an infant. So that was the lesson of the turn of the century research to mid-century research and psychology: that early attachments are necessary for healthy development.

Now, I think that the lessons from research at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century is that that need continues from cradle to the grave. It does not end. We just need it in every arena: work, school, jobs, our politics, and our community. There are terrible, terrible consequences when that need is not met, as it isn’t among many societies today. I really do feel like that is one of the causal culprits underlying many of the problems that we see today, ranging from xenophobia to polarization to underperformance in school. It’s not the only thing, but it is a major thing.

Now when else in the lifespan is a need to belong, important? I would say early adolescence is very key. Sixth grade, watch out—I would say, those early adolescence years are like the 60s of development turbulence. That’s a really important point where research by Jackie Echols and others finds that kids are often thirsty for human connection, even with adults, but ironically they get less of it at that moment. So early adolescence for teenagers is so key.

Then I would say throughout our lives we need it but especially at these transitions, these liminal spaces where you’re leaving one social world and entering another. Graduating, starting a new job, becoming a parent, starting a new relationship. These are moments where we experience what Greg Walton, my brilliant colleague, and I called “belonging uncertainty”, where we’re entering a new environment and you’re thinking “I don’t know that I belong here.” When I started as an assistant professor years and years ago, I was facing acute belonging uncertainty because I really didn’t know if I could hack it. And that made me spend so much mental energy trying to figure out if I belong and interpreting these little gestures. I remember my chair patted me on the back and asked me, “How’s that class going?” And I felt like, “Oh, did he hear something?” And I was in a state of vigilance that really sucked away a lot of energy that I could have been putting into my teaching and my research. So those transitions are really key; it is not just your chronological stage that matters, it’s your situation. I would say put transitions at the top of the list for points of vulnerability and also windows of opportunity where a little bit of support can go a long way.

SEAN SPEER: Is there a difference between belonging in the physical world and belonging in the virtual world where one obtains a similar sense of belonging through, for instance, a web-based community?

GEOFFERY COHEN: I think that that’s possible. But I think that that’s harder. My read of the research is that those kinds of connections that we form online through social media, Twitter and Facebook, that on the whole they are like cheap calories rather than real psychological nourishment. They give us a little dopamine blast but they don’t really fill us up. And we end up kind of a little addicted and craving more because we’re kind of a little psychologically empty in our own lives, sometimes, where we don’t have those connections, those authentic connections. I like the way Brené Brown puts this, that belonging isn’t really about being the same, it’s about being accepted fully for who you are. And that’s very hard in the performative world of social media where it’s just difficult to be your full, authentic self for so many reasons.

It reminds me, I was rewatching this old Hitchcock movie, Rear Window, which I think is seminal for the era we’re in where people who are the main characters, are just kind of watching their neighbours, and they have no commitment at all to them. They’re just watching other people as a performance. And even when one of their neighbours is killed, or even when they think one of the neighbours has not been murdered they’re a little disappointed because they wanted to see something exciting. So I do worry that social media, if not used appropriately, and there probably are ways to do this, can lead us down a path of isolation from the kinds of secure bases that really give us the nourishment and we need to hang in there and feel good.

SEAN SPEER: Most of the conversation so far, Geoffrey, is sort of implicitly focused on the positive benefits associated with belonging. But it seems to me belonging isn’t necessarily inherently good. One can belong to a religious tradition or a community organization, but one can also belong to a prison gang or a white supremacist group. So can you talk a bit about these different types of belonging? Do they produce essentially the same feelings for people?

GEOFFERY COHEN: Yes and no. Yes. People join extremist and hate groups because they want to belong. Research by Arie Kruglanski and others—he’s written two books about this—which I think demonstrates pretty powerfully that one of the reasons people join extremist groups, even terrorist groups, initially isn’t because they subscribe to the ideology but because they want an authentic place where they feel that they can belong. Oftentimes these individuals have been isolated from their families. They feel disconnected from their communities. Not always. The threat of belonging can also be at a group level. I might be well educated but feel like my group is increasingly isolated from the pathways to success and fulfillment. So it’s that quest for belonging on my behalf, or on behalf of my group, that motivates a lot.

Kruglanski says extremist groups provide a sense of in-group belongingness. And hate groups and extremist groups, we need to watch out for it. They know this. They exploit this. I tell a few stories illustrating this. C.P Ellis, who became the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, he felt that way. He felt like the Klan just made him feel like someone who mattered. And he didn’t really buy into the ideology until much later. And then later, he renounced it because he found an authentic sense of belonging in another place. So yes, I do think that when your sense of belonging is defeated and you feel disconnected from the wider community, you are vulnerable. That’s a big lesson for societies to imbibe. Because that means a sense of belonging to a country, a community, is so vital to an intelligent citizenry. So that’s the yes.

The no is that, returning to Brené Brown, these extremist groups don’t provide authentic belonging but faux belonging. Your acceptance is conditional on subscribing to the views of the group. So as a result, that’s their kind of Achilles heel, to use a term that Bruce Hoffman, another scholar of terrorism, has used. They have an Achilles heel.

One way to draw people back, to bring them back, is to provide that authentic sense of belonging. The organizations and the interventions that have turned extremists, and even former terrorists, is they connect people with authentic sources of belonging through work, community, family. That’s the way to go. But so I do think it’s the same that people thirst for belonging and they join these extremist groups. But oftentimes, the sense of belonging that you get in these groups is not authentic but faux.

SEAN SPEER: How much should today’s political polarization be understood through a lens of belonging? And perhaps relatedly, how much of our current feelings about belonging represent a consequence of secularization and the withdrawal from religious affiliation as a traditional source of belonging?

GEOFFERY COHEN: It’s hard to say with these kinds of cultural shifts. It’s really hard to trace the causal origins. But I think that the evidence does suggest that a widespread sense of disconnection is partly responsible for polarization. There is, of course, a perfect storm of other things that are feeding into where we are now. I think the media, for one, stokes a lot of fear. They have taken the lessons of social psychology, one being that fear and outrage command attention, and turned that into a mercenary strategy. And so as a result, so much of the media that we’re being inundated with stirs up fear and outrage toward the other side, which makes us feel like we need to ally with our own side. So I would put the media in there which exploits our psychological vulnerabilities.

I would say that it is a combination of the situations that are being created for us by media, by social media, by the government, by politicians, and by our cycle of shared psychological vulnerabilities that have put us where we are. Now, as one example of the role of belongingness in political polarization, years ago I did this study where we gave liberals and conservatives a welfare policy that matched their ideological orientation. In one case, the policy was very generous, which liberals liked, and in another case, the policy was very draconian, which conservatives by and large liked. When we gave them those policies, liberals liked the generous one and conservatives liked the stringent one.

However, for another group, we told them, “Actually, your group favours the opposite policy.” And then the question was, do people base their support of the policy on the content of the policy or the position of their party? And the answer was the position of their party, by far, was the biggest influence. And that kind of effect, the power of party cues, has been replicated over and over. We trust our political tribes. Increasingly, that’s happening because we’re increasingly isolated from one another and fearful of one another which makes us even more untrustworthy of the other side, more trusting of our side. This just creates this vicious cycle in which we become increasingly polarized and suspicious of one another. So I think that belongingness and the need to belong contribute partly to the polarization that we’re in.

Yet, nevertheless, there are small things we can do to encourage openness. Given that analysis, a lot of research by my colleagues and me have found that shoring up belonging, for instance, by letting people think about their relationships, or their friends and family, opens them up to positions that are different from their own, makes them less likely to denigrate people from the other side of the political aisle, and even makes them a little more curious about their political positions. So that’s one example of how to bridge these divides down to the level of encounter or political dialogue, by creating these affirming situations that kind of give people that sense of belonging and security of self so that they feel more open to considering perspectives that challenge their own.

SEAN SPEER: I just have a couple of questions remaining for you, Geoffrey, that look forward based on the research and evidence that you’ve brought to bear on our conversation so far.

When we started, you talked a bit about the individualistic nature of Western societies and the shift away from a solidaristic set of social arrangements of, say the post-war era. One of the main reasons we moved away from that kind of sense of community was that it was often misogynistic, racist, conformist, an impediment to creativity, etc., though, as you observe in the book, there’s a case that we’ve probably steered the car too far in the other direction.

Is there a way to organize our society that reaps some of the benefits of individualism without fully giving up the kind of solidaristic benefits of community and belonging? Is there in effect a kind of middle ground?

GEOFFERY COHEN: I think so. My book is not about changing social policy and dismantling the systems of exclusion. That is such an important goal that other books such as Wilkerson’s look at, and there are many. There are things we could do at the level of institutions’ policies to make them more inclusive, and some of them are pretty simple. Even just universal childcare, for instance, would create a much more inclusive work environment for so many individuals. My book isn’t really about that. It’s about the ways that we can fight back day to day, every day. It’s empowering in that way. Little things we can do to challenge the larger and harmful messages that we’re getting from the culture.

Just to give you one example, we did some work with David Jager, Ernie Greenaway, and Claude Steele, looking at the teacher-student interaction across racial lines. When a white teacher gives critical feedback to a Black student, sometimes the Black student might wonder, “Oh, is this criticism a sign that my teacher disrespects me? Thinks I don’t belong here? Thinks I’m stupid?” There is a kind of cultural stereotype that intrudes on the encounter, to ambiguate the meaning of the feedback for the Black students. So Black students, oftentimes, when they get criticism are in a very different kind of psychological situation from the kind of situation a white student is in when they get the same kind of feedback from a white teacher. So the culture in a sense is creating the mistrust. The stereotype is creating a kind of understandable mistrust.

What can you do to fight back? We developed a strategy called “wise criticism”, where all the teacher does is say before giving the criticism, “Look, I’m giving you this feedback because I have high standards and I believe in your potential.” Which just makes it clear that this isn’t about the stereotypes. I know that there are the stereotypes out there, but this has nothing to do with it. So you create a kind of bubble or umbrella.

That’s why I have an umbrella on the cover. It’s a sort of protective membrane that shuts out the harmful messages of the culture. And what we found is that in a randomized controlled experiment, the percentage of African Americans who revise their work after getting that feedback jumps from 17 percent to 71 percent. A little bit can go a long way. And there are many other things we can do, ranging, as we said, from being polite to disclosing and sharing stories that can fight back against these harmful cultural influences. I think if we all do them a little bit, it can add up to a huge effect. I see the book as a sort of hitchhiker’s guide to modern social life because we live in a very complex, diverse world of wide-ranging sensibilities and sensitivities, and how to navigate that world is not so easy. But there’s hope and there are strategies.

SEAN SPEER: As someone who’s dedicated a big part of his professional life to this question, is there a reason for optimism? Do you see in modern society signs that people have come to recognize the importance of belonging and are prepared to commit themselves to some of the simple yet profound strategies that you set out in the book?

GEOFFERY COHEN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. By and large, people hate polarization. By and large people value compassion and kindness. By and large, people love connection, even with strangers. So yeah, just having a conversation with a total stranger is uplifting, even though people don’t think it will be. So I think, and this is my philosophy, the hopeful thing is there’s a huge reservoir of goodwill and positive values among the people, right? So now that means the trick is how do we create an opening in our day-to-day situations for those assets to surface? And that’s the dilemma. I think of a lot of social life is how you bring the better angels of ourselves to the surface. It’s by changing the situation we’re in. It’s not so much about changing people. It’s about creating situations that create an opening for what’s inside people to come out.

I think over and over again, a lot of the strategies and practices in social psychology are doing just that. I was amazed by that study on wise criticism; it really doesn’t say anything about the power of the so-called intervention of wise criticism. What it does say is that these students, even though they’ve been stereotyped and marginalized for years, they want to trust and they are motivated, they just need the situation cleared up so that they know it’s safe to do so. I think that lesson applies so much everywhere. That’s why I’m hopeful because what’s inside is really a powerful asset. And it’s about creating these situations that ally us with our better natures.

SEAN SPEER: Well, for those listeners looking to cultivate a greater sense of belonging at the individual and the collective level, I recommend they read Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides by Stanford University professor Geoffrey Cohen. Thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

GEOFFERY COHEN: Thank you, Sean. It was a lovely conversation.