Why Belonging is a Fundamental Human Need

By Kathy Kure

Human Survival requires that we belong; we are hardwired to be socially connected. Anyone who disputes this is immune to a baby’s cries in the confined space of an aircraft. The distress of crying babies registers so acutely that a large proportion of people say they’d pay extra to be in a child-free zone.

When we describe social pain, all cultures use physical pain as their reference. While it may simply be that physical pain provokes strong metaphors for social pain, new imaging of the brain in real time indicates the same region is used to register both ostracism and pain.

These functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies show the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which has a clear role in reward-based decision-making, registers social rejection and physical pain.

Even more fascinating, over-the-counter painkillers can dull physical pain and feelings of social pain – which, in part, explains the use of self-medication in those who are anxious and depressed.

Of course, many areas of the brain are involved in processing any stimulus, but the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex has a central role to play in the anticipation and detection of targets including the processing of novel stimuli. It can influence motor responses, encode reward values and respond to both internal and external errors.

It’s compared with an alarm system in that it appears to function to detect issues and sound the siren.

Social rejection and pain are akin in that they alert us to risks that are potentially life-threatening.

Horse whisperer extraordinaire, Monty Roberts’s techniques were derived from close observations of wild mustang herds. He discovered that the rambunctious young stallions creating havoc would be excluded by the matriarchs via a discernible, effective and predictable body language, he dubbed Equus.

As darkness fell, the stallions had to submit to authority before they were allowed back into the safety of the herd, and this was preferable to being left to the mercy of coyotes and mountain lions.

Roberts discovered he could simulate this with his body language and effectively, his join-up technique simply excludes a lone horse in an environment, which ensures they feel no physical pain until it becomes too much and they indicate through their body language they wish to be included.

Social exclusion hurts, it lowers self-esteem, and can increase aggression and paradoxically, conformity to group norms – given the strong need for inclusion. What Roberts does then is ensure inclusion after initial exclusion, thereby winning the horses over as opposed to creating an aggressive animal.

But what does this mean for marketers?

We did not need the rise of social media to tell us humans are innately social. However, the depth of the need to be connected has led some commentators to talk about addiction rather than connection. But is it really addiction?

“Being socially connected is our brain’s lifelong passion,” says psychologist Matthew Lieberman.

Humans, who have become apex predators not through muscular size or strength, but through social connectedness, crave to belong.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in social media, where the rise of the micro-celebrity has taken some commentators by surprise.

Micro-celebrities, mommy bloggers, influencers, YouTube stars, vloggers, whatever name you give them, collectively describe someone who is seemingly ordinary, vlogging or blogging or tweeting from their room but who attains large followings with great engagement.

Recent South African research exploring what attributes these accidental social media stars have in common indicates that though necessary, it is not sufficient to generate original, authentic, compelling content on a regular enough basis.

What the micro-celebrities and the YouTube stars such as PewDiePie, Jenna Marbles and Caspar Lee have in common, is that they are self-deprecating, likeable characters who ensure you feel like you belong.

On a platform such as Google Plus, those who love to teach rise to the top by actively creating a safe environment conducive to learning, while top vloggers send themselves up to hilarious effect.

As Marbles, said of her success: “It’s wild, I still don’t consider this a career – kicking it in your room alone with your dogs and then uploading videos to the internet?”

But when pressed to describe her channel, she responded, “It’s ridiculous – the videos make you laugh and then – maybe – make you feel awesome on the inside.”

Marbles is a comedian who wears her masters in sports psychology and counselling lightly. One of the best parts of her work is hearing from the girls who say to her: “You make me feel like it’s okay to be weird” and I’m like, “Yeah dude, do that, it’s so much better than being normal – freak flag, fly that high”.

So how do you get your brand to worm its way into a community?

That’s the challenge for marketers and it’s evident that who you employ in this task and the strategies they use to ensure a feeling of inclusivity is as fundamental as superb, compelling, original, authentic, image-rich content.

– Kure is a marketing research consultant at Data Myna: www.datamyna.com. First published in the Saturday Star, 12 July 2014

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