Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Belongingness motivation

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Belongingness motivation:
What motivates people to seek the acceptance of others?


Figure 1. People innately seek to belong and doing so brings pleasure[factual?].

Many theories[for example?] attempt to explain belongingness motivation and why people seek interpersonal acceptance. Such theories argue that the social nature of human beings dictates that a need to belong is a fundamental component of life. Because this need is so important it crucial to understand the nature of why this is the case so that we can improve our own lives. This chapter integrates current research with [which?] these theories to understand the importance of the belongingness need as well as illuminate the effects of social acceptance and how to cope with social rejection. Developing a clear understanding of belongingness will improve your social functioning and quality of life as a result.

What is belongingness?[edit]

Belongingness is the human drive to form positive and lasting interpersonal relationships and ultimately to be a part of a social group environment (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). As humans, we are all a part of social groups; whether they are friendship groups, sports teams, work groups or families, these social bodies form an integral part of our lives. Social interaction is a key physical component of basic human needs just as food, water and shelter are. A sense of belongingness falls under the most basic yet crucial aspects of human needs; it is almost impossible to live a healthy life without some form social connection with other people (Baumeister, 2005). The same thing cannot be said about other physical human wants such as sexual activity; while these are important for mental well-being they are not crucial to sustaining a healthy life (Baumeister, 2005). Maslow (1968) suggested that under the complexities of emotional breakdowns, the common underlining [spelling?] cause is the need for belongingness, love and respect. Indeed, many theorists argue that belongingness is a fundamental component of life. Maslow himself proposed that belongingness is preceded only by physiological and security needs in their levels of importance (see Figure 2.). According to Maslow (1943) belongingness and love needs can only be met if physiological and safety needs are met first. Just like physiological needs, belongingness is a significant basic human need required to achieve self-actualization and the complete fulfillment of needs. Belongingness motivation is strongly associated with the themes of evolution and survival as well as needs and identity.

What motivates a sense of belonging: Theories of belongingness motivation[edit]

Belongingness is a stable concept to all human life and the need to belong can be found on some level in all cultures (Baumiester [spelling?], & Leary, 1995). Group belongingness has always had reproductive and survival benefits in human evolutionary history; groups share resources, workloads and cooperate in the caring of offspring; thus it is of no surprise that there are negative psychological consequences associated with social deprivation (Baumeister, & Leary, 1995). However there are also positive outcomes of social interaction which are also important. The rewards associated with successful and lasting interrelationships are notable psychological benefits; specifically people are rewarded by others who like, share ideas with and agree with them; it makes them feel good (Fiske, 2010). Seeking the acceptance of others is motivated by a sense of belongingness and the consequences associated with a lack of such; there are both positive and negative psychological drive processes involved. Many theorists suggest that these drives originate from evolutionary development. There are several existing theories that suggest why humans are motivated to belong[for example?].

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Theory[edit]

Figure 2. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs[factual?].

Perhaps the most famous example of motivation theory is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory. This theory breaks down basic human needs into 5 tiers which include physiological needs, safety needs, belonging needs, esteem needs and self-actualization needs (see Figure 2.). Each tier is ranked in order of importance, starting with physiological needs which precedes all other needs. Each preceding tier henceforth must be satisfied before the next tier can be achieved; with the ultimate achievement being self-actualisation. A healthy person is motivated to maximise his or her full potential, to achieve self-actualization (Maslow, 1943). This goal motivates the satisfaction of all preceding tiers of the hierarchy; hence Maslow’s theory suggests that humans are motivated to achieve satisfaction in belongingness and seek acceptance in order to ultimately fulfill self-actualisation needs.

The major concern with this theoretical approach is that it innately assumes all people are logical and rational. Of course this theory is not applicable to the motivation of all people. For example, some people may be more motivated to fulfill power wants before satisfying a sense of belongingness with others. In addition to this concern, there are other applicability issues with this theory of motivation. An assessment of literature conducted by Gambrel and Cianci (2003) suggests that Maslow’s hierarchy is not applicable to all cultures in that people in collectivist cultures would likely be more motivated by belongingness satisfaction than those who live in individualistic cultures. Nevis (1983) suggests that collectivist cultures would be most motivated by belongingness, (this even precedes physiological and safety needs) and would not consider esteem a need; instead self-actualisation in service of the community would replace Maslow’s concept of self-actualisation [grammar?].

Tajfel's Social Identity Theory and Positive Distinctiveness[edit]

Another notable theory applicable to belongingness motivation is social identity theory. While this theory is typically associated with intergroup behaviour such as discrimination it does provide answers as to why people are motivated to seek belongingness through concepts of positive distinctiveness. Social identity is a person’s understanding of who they are based on social interactions with others; [grammar?] specifically what groups they associate with. People are motivated to achieve a positive sense self-concept, self-esteem and social identity through social group interaction (Tajfel, & Turner, 1979). When social identity expectations are not met, people are motivated to leave existing social groups and seek new ones in order to fulfill their positive self-concept needs (Tajfel, & Turner, 1979). Thus this theory suggests that people are motivated to seek the acceptance of others to fulfill their own needs of identity. This theory integrates well with Maslow’s concepts of esteem. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and social identity theory have similar concepts with respect to obtaining self-esteem needs; both suggest that people are motivated to belong in order to fulfill their own psychological needs such as respect and appreciation.

Bolwby's Attachment Theory[edit]

Attachment theory has had many significant contributions to understanding human belongingness motivation, particularly in the domain of children. Attachment theory is useful for understanding the fundamental dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Bowlby (2005) described attachment as interpersonal behaviour where an individual seeks to maintain a close relationship with others for survival purposes. Attachment behaviour is most evident in the psychology of children, however fundamental aspects of attachment appear during all stages of life (Bowlby, 2005). Having somebody to rely on for aid during crisis scenarios is always useful regardless of age; in this sense attachment theory explains why people are motivated to belong (Bowlby, 2005). This theory primarily is concerned with early stages of life, yet the sense of belongingness in early life has a significant impact on how an individual seeks belongingness in later life. Peterson (2010) suggests that individuals who develop secure attachments in the first year of life have greater romantic, friendship and parenthood relationship success than people who did not develop secure attachments during this time. Thus attachment theory holds significant value in understanding belongingness motivation. Unlike Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory or Tajfel’s social identity theory which focus on belongingness motivation as a function of achieving self-esteem and identity needs, attachment theory approaches belongingness motivation as a means of survival and protection. This is much like Baumeister and Leary’s belongingness motivation theory which suggests that humans evolved to belong in groups in order to survive.

Baumeister and Leary's Belongingness Theory[edit]

The most applicable theory to belongingness motivation and the central theoretical theme of this chapter is Baumeister and Leary’s belongingness theory. This theory considers the survival and evolutionary themes of belongingness needs as well as psychological and emotional distress consequences when these needs are not met. According to this theory there are a variety of benefits associated with group belonging from an evolutionary perspective including greater chances of reproduction and increased chance that offspring will mature, receive love and care (Baumeister, & Leary, 1995). In addition it allows the sharing of resources within the group environment as well as the protection of resources from external threats (Baumeister, & Leary, 1995). While this point considers why social groups are important from an evolutionary perspective it does offer a suggestion as to why people are motivated to seek belongingness. The theory suggests that there a number of internal mechanisms which developed from evolution that guide people to seek social acceptance; specifically people experience emotional and psychological pain when faced with rejection and experience pleasure from social relatedness (Baumeister, & Leary, 1995). The theory suggests that these emotional consequences are ultimately what motivate people to seek the acceptance of others. Baumeister and Leary (1995) suggest that humans have an inherent desire to belong in interpersonal relationships, {{grammar]} failure to satisfy this desire results in mental distress and loneliness. Lack of belonging can be met with dire consequences to psychological health and this is indeed by evolutionary design. Unfortunately this theory does not explicitly deal with concepts of esteem and identity needs as Maslow and Tajfel have. Thus an understanding and integration of these two domains may be required to fully comprehend all aspects of belongingness motivation.

There are several other theories applicable to the concept of belongingness motivation, including Freudian approaches which involve sex and aggression as motivators as well as other behaviourist approaches, [grammar?] these theories are generally considered outdated and less relevant. As such they will not be a focus of this chapter.

How Belongingness Affects Human Life: The Research[edit]

Belongingness and Work Life[edit]

Achieving a strong sense of belongingness is not just a psychological need as identified by the hierarchy of needs and social identity theories. It is well known in the literature that a strong sense of belongingness improves quality of life overall by enhancing workplace performance, happiness and motivation to achieve other goals[factual?]. While many motivation theorists recognise that belongingness is an important psychological drive it is also often inappropriately considered as a minor background process (DeWall, Baumeister, & Vohs, 2008). This is indeed the case with respect to the hierarchy of needs and social identity theories which regard these processes as unconscious drives to obtain esteem needs. DeWall et al., (2008) found that there were significant links between self-regulation and social acceptance; specifically that rejection or lack of social acceptance inhibited self-regulatory performance. Self-regulation is the internal cognitive process that allows us to maximise effort, maintain persistence, balance accuracy and speed as well as assess potential mistakes during task performance (DeWall et al., 2008). Self-regulation is a crucial cognition for work performance as well as daily function. Impairment of this cognition is detrimental to success in occupational life. Another study conducted by Cockshaw and Shochet (2010) also found substantial associations between depression and lack of belongingness in the workplace; specifically that lack of social acceptance in the workplace increases depressive symptoms. This finding is consistent with belongingness theory which would suggest that this is an emotional pain consequence resulting from lack of belonging. The findings of the literature suggest that social acceptance and belongingness are fundamentally important for having a successful work life[factual?]. There are limitations to these studies, however. Cockshaw and Shochet (2010) suggest that their study had not considered the opposite direction of the casual influences between depression and belongingness; they had not considered that existing depression could have influenced perceptions of social acceptance. Furthermore, DeWall, Baumeister and Vohs (2008) suggested that their findings contradict some existing theories of belongingness motivation which would otherwise suggest that lack of belongingness would in fact have a positive effect of self-regulatory performance as an attempt to seek social acceptance. Replication of these studies with compromises to these limitations is required; however the findings are a significant contribution to understanding the importance of belongingness and how it affects work performance.

Belongingness and Daily Function[edit]

In addition to the impact that social rejection has on work life and performance there are a number of potential concerns to everyday functioning when belongingness needs are not met. A study by Twenge, Baumeister, Tice and Stucke (2001) found that participants of their study who experienced social rejection had become more aggressive and developed a greater sense of hostility toward others. While typically it would seem logical to act prosocially in the face of rejection there is almost no evidence in recent research to suggest that this is the common response (DeWall, Twenge, Gitter, & Baumeister, 2009). This idea may support attachment theory in the sense that this behaviour could be attributed to a poor sense of attachment in early life. However this outcome would only be applicable to a handful of participants and would unlikely affect this conclusion. Furthermore social rejection hinders rational emotional responses, where they might normally be used to form interpersonal understanding; social rejection instead inhibits prosocial behavioural responses possibly to protect the self from intense emotional pain (Twenge, Baumeister, DeWall, Ciarocco, & Bartels, 2007). This does make sense with respect to belongingness theory as it suggests that emotional pain is a consequence of social rejection. A study conducted by MacDonald and Leary (2005) found that emotional and physical pain share the same mechanisms; they both function to protect an organism from harm and distress and both promote survival. These two types of pain also share the same physical mechanisms and are both actively used in threat-response (MacDonald and Leary, 2005). This research supports the evolutionary origins of belongingness theory in that these mechanisms promote survival and protection of the organism. This research could also explain why people become aggressive when socially rejected. DeWall, Baumeister and Vohs (2008) suggests that this could explain why people engage in antisocial behaviour when ostracised. It is unusual and illogical that people behave in this fashion when socially rejected as it seems detrimental to forming new social bonds; this may also be attributed to impaired self-regulation (DeWall etal., 2008). Social rejection created disturbing responses in participants of these studies, this research does suggest that there are many emotional and psychological consequences to social rejection and lack of belongingness which supports belongingness theory[grammar?]. Thus this research further supports the statement of DeWall, Baumeister and Vohs (2008) that belongingness motivation is no mere background process; instead it should be considered a fundamental and active function of human life. Humans are motivated by a physical need to belong and social pain is evidence of this (MacDonald and Leary, 2005). Ultimately the research concludes that people are motivated to belong because facing rejection means negative consequences; through [spelling?] survival human instincts have evolved to combat this.

Positive Outcomes of Successful Belongingness and How to Cope with Rejection[edit]

There is strong evidence [factual?] to suggest that belongingness is one of humankind’s most basic needs and that failure to belong is met with severe emotional trauma. But there are many positive outcomes associated with successful and lasting interpersonal relationships; these too motivate us to seek the acceptance of others. Successful interpersonal relationships improve both physical health and mental well-being (DeWall, Twenge, Koole, Baumeister, Marquez, & Reid, 2011). Much of the previous research in human belongingness has focused on the negative effects of social rejection (DeWall etal., 2011). While it is important to consider this research in understanding why we are motivated to belong, the research does not directly discuss the positive outcomes of lasting relationships. A strong sense of belonging decreases stress, anxiety and the sense of self-consciousness; this is particularly evident in the case of middle-school students and adolescents, where a sense of belongingness is of even greater importance (Roeser, Midgley & Urdan, 1996). This ties in with attachment theory which would imply that this could be an outcome of successful attachment in the early childhood stages of life. Needless to say, satisfaction of the belongingness need has benefits to everyday life. People are motivated to seek a sense of belonging not only because of fear of loneliness but because it feels good. This motivation is stronger than the fear of social rejection; the benefits of lasting relationships outweigh the emotional consequences of social rejection. If this were not the case then people would avoid social interactions for fear of rejection.

Figure 3. Rejection has a negative impact on mental wellbeing[factual?].

A number of studies have found ways for participants to cope with rejection. Developing a coping mechanism when facing social rejection is crucial; people who have more developed ways of coping often have better mental health (DeWall etal., 2011). An emotion regulation response of positive thinking as a means of affective forecasting (predicting one’s mood in the future) is often nicknamed an “invisible shield” (DeWall etal., 2011). Use of invisible shields as emotion regulation processes in response to social rejection results in less emotional distress as well as a happier and healthier being (DeWall etal., 2011). This may indeed also reduce the likelihood of aggressive responses to social rejection which are more harmful and detrimental to seeking acceptance. This method of positive thinking during affective forecasting reduces emotional pain during these scenarios in the same sense that aggression would by protecting the self, and it leads to better mental health. Another coping mechanism to social exclusion is having a strong understanding of personal values, traits and abilities; in other words, having a strong sense of self-construal (Ren, Wesselmann, & Williams, 2013). Individuals with a stronger sense of self-construal are more capable of coping with social exclusion by directing focus to other social groups as a means to recover from the social exclusion episode (Ren etal., 2013). This idea strengthens the concept of positive distinctiveness within the social identity theory. People can avoid focusing on social rejection and instead divert their attention to other social groups and personal identity as a means of coping. Understanding and appreciating one’s own values and traits provides comfort in times of emotional distress; creating a greater sense of identity which one may use to associate with other social groups. These coping strategies are effective means to prevent emotional pain as the result of ostracism; yet these methods also require practice. As humans we share the innate desire and motivation to belong, thus practice of these coping methods would be largely beneficial when faced with social exclusion.

Test Your Knowledge[edit]


1 Without scrolling back up, answer which is the second tier from the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory?


2 What was the nickname given to the emotion regulation method of positive thinking as a means of affective forecasting in response to social rejection?

Invisible Barrier.
Invisible Shield.
Social Rejection Coping Mechanism
Protective Sheild.

3 What was the second belongingness motivation theory mentioned in this chatpter?

Social Identity Theory and Positive Distinciveness.
Belongingness Theory.
Attachment Theory.
Hierarchy of Needs Theory

4 Social rejection would most likely result in an increased _____ response toward others?


5 Which of these is not a benefit of lasting interpersonal relationships from an evolutionary standpoint?

Sharing of Resources.
Caring of Offspring
Esteem Development.
Increased Chance of Reproduction.


The desire to belong is in the nature of every human being. Belongingness motivation is influenced by both evolutionary factors and esteem needs to obtain a sense of identity. Belongingness impacts on our daily lives and satisfaction of belongingness needs results in positive psychological outcomes, whilst there are also harsh negative consequences if belongingness needs are not met. These consequences affect work life, daily function and other relationships[explain?]. Developing a coping strategy when faced with social rejection is an important approach to preventing emotional pain and the impact on daily life associated social rejection. As the research suggests [factual?] this will improve your quality of life and your mental health as a result. Humans are meant to belong to [say what?], to be social, to be respected and to be recognised by each other. It[what?] allows us to survive and adapt in extreme circumstances; and this is by evolutionary design.


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