Monday, October 21, 2013

The need to belong

Everyone who is either a teacher, a parent, a caring sibling, a mentor, a friend, a boss, a coworker, or . . . .I think I have everyone covered here somewhere - needs to read this.  I have blogged about this effect before, but this article is a great summary.  It captures a visceral and resonating story that happens to be true and almost tragic. 

We all have a strong need to belong to a group.  Of course this is adaptive - being part of a tribe added a lot to survivability compared to living alone.  But the nuances of this need can teach us a lot.

First, we can think about people who are part of a racial, ethnic, or religious minority.  It is harder to feel a sense of belonging simply because there are fewer people in whom to find a social group that you like.   There are no guarantees that you are going to have things in common with the other members who are nearby.  The digital world helps, but you can't meet all your friends on Facebook. 

Second, we can think about people who choose to join a rare group based on the career, hobby, or other interests.  Kids who like science are often made fun of because they are less common than the kids who like recess.  And what if you happen not to like the other five kids in the science club? 

It is even worse if you have both.  If you are an ethnic minority who pursues a rare career (like the woman in the article), it is really hard to find a strong cohort of friends.

Now we have to add on the psychological piece.  The feelings of stereotype threat and belonging uncertainty make it harder.  And since these are unconscious processes, you don't even realize when they lead you to give up your real passion and pursue something more "normal" for the larger group you fit in to. 

So why did I start off by asking teachers and parents to read this instead of inspiring the Hispanic, visually impaired, Muslim girl to pursue her love for quantum physics?  Because these things are really hard to recognize in yourself.  Instead (or rather in addition), it would be great if teachers could pay attention for students with counter-stereotype interests and help them along.  Bosses could do the same for their employees who have good job skills but seem to be spending lunch alone.  Friends. siblings, and co-workers might not have the position of power, but they have perhaps more social influence. 

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