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The Brain Science Behind Belonging: Why ‘Fitting In’ Matters to Humans

Fitting In to a diverse group of people
 Min Read: 4  

For most people, their adolescent years consisted of cringe-worthy moments and awkward trial-and-error interactions to figure out what cliques they fit into, and where to sit in the lunchroom. The truth is, we’re still playing out those same lunchroom rituals well into adulthood as working professionals, romantic partners, and friends. Understanding the science behind belonging can help us learn to navigate these experiences with a kinder, more humane lens.

Born to Belong

Biologically, humans are wired to assess where they fit into the social landscape. While a young child’s brain simply sorts strangers as friend or foe, as the brain grows into adolescence, it develops more nuanced capabilities, shifting to recognize and prioritize the in-group. Around the age of ten, self-consciousness kicks in, bringing with it a host of issues. Social media only exacerbates this process.

Human nature is driven by its desire to survive, belong, and become— our body essentially prepares us to leave our family nests in order to successfully live in our larger communities. It’s for precisely this reason that peer influence becomes so prevalent for tweens and teens. “Peer pressure” is not just a catch phrase; it’s the result of our brains sorting for what our in-group thinks in order to find our rightful place in the social stratosphere.

As we enter new social spaces, like the workplace or neighborhoods, our brains scan for information, mapping relationships based on power. Both consciously and subconsciously, the brain measures and weighs the hierarchy, as well as affinity (including trustworthiness, love, intimacy). This is largely thanks to the ancient part of our brains—where evolution taught us that if we were outcast from the tribe, we were more likely to perish. Being able to scan for the peer group’s values and preferences provides the tools to navigate our communities and increase our chances of being accepted.

Dr. Nathan DeWall, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky describes it this way: “Humans have a fundamental need to belong. Just as we have needs for food and water, we also have needs for positive and lasting relationships. This need is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history.”

Fight or Flight?: The Brain’s Response to Exclusion

When our brains perceive that we are being forced to the fringe, it reacts just as it does when faced with a physical threat. In fact, one of the most shocking discoveries I made while researching for my book, Wired to Connect, is that exclusion lights up the same regions of the brain as physical pain — creating the same neurological reaction as if you’ve been hit. Exclusion then, is just as threatening to our survival and as painful as a physical injury.

As Dr. Kipling Williams, a psychologist at Purdue University states, “Being excluded is painful because it threatens fundamental human needs, such as belonging and self-esteem. Again and again research has found that strong, harmful reactions are possible even when ostracized

by a stranger for a short amount of time.” A study he conducted with Dr. Naomi Eisenberg at UCLA found that the same parts of the brain activate for social rejection as they do for physical pain.

How Rejection Hurts Us

In Dr. Williams’ study of the aftereffects of exclusion, he found three stages of exclusion or ostracism:

  1. Initial act of being ignored
  2. Coping
  3. Resignation

During the initial act of being ignored, the brain registers the experience as a type of pain. Williams studied over 5,000 people and found that even two to three minutes of exclusion can create lingering negative feelings.

In the coping stage, people tended to have one of two responses to exclusion. Some tried harder to be included, engaging in behaviors designed to help them get re-integrated into the

group, such as conforming, complying, and cooperating. Picture the bully’s sidekick, afraid of having the group turn on him, or the people-pleaser who hopes their constant affability  will keep them well-liked.

However on the opposite end of the spectrum, when people feel there is little hope of re-inclusion, they are likely to seek inclusion elsewhere, essentially rejecting the group

that rejected them. Researchers found that the less control people had in their lives, the more likely they were to lash out at the group that rejected them. In addition, this group is often targeted by gangs or extremist groups who offer not only a place to belong, but the ability to engage in real harm toward the group who excluded them.

The third stage, resignation, happens when exclusion or ostracism occurs over a long time — such as at school or at work, where people have to return every day to an environment where they feel they do not belong. Research by Dr. DeWall shows that people who experience

long-term exclusion suffer significantly: they have lower performance on difficult tasks, poorer sleep quality, poor impulse control, and lower-functioning immune systems. The risks of anxiety, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse increase as well.

Inclusion Matters

Having a sense of belonging matters and we get there by engaging in acts of inclusion. Fostering inclusion is bigger than a simple feel-good initiative—it requires a commitment to countering the negative impact of bias and micro aggressions with intentional efforts of micro affirmations, and building psychological safety. Whether in the workplace, the neighborhood, or in new spaces, using this knowledge can help us build safer, healthier places for everyone.


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