The Importance Of Belonging

This week my brother, Adrian Pruchnicky, told me a pretty wonderful story about dropping his son, Luka, off for his first day of daycare.  Like most parents, he and his wife were nervous, anxious and excited for their son.  

When Adrian arrived to daycare with Luka, they spent a couple of minutes dropping off forms and extra clothes. Next, he and Luka went into the class.  They were greeted by one of the teachers.  She smiled, held out her arms to Luka, and asked if he wanted to go with her to play.  Luka walked right into her arms and kissed her.  They walked over to some blocks and he started to play.

Adrian laughed at his charmer of a son and went out for a cup of tea.

When I heard the story I laughed hysterically at the kiss (especially because his kisses are done with fishy lips), and was comforted by the fact that he felt like he belonged (which also made Adrian feel like their family belonged).

A sense of belonging actually helps us to understand the people around us.  Psychologists call this the in/out-group bias:

“We tend- erroneously of course – to think of people who are members of our group, whatever that group may be, as individuals, while we think of members of out-groups as a less well differentiated collective.  That is, when asked to judge how disparate are the interests, personalities, and proclivities the people in our group (the in-group) versus another group (the out-group), we tend to overestimate the similarities of out-group members.

So, for example, if Democrats are asked to describe how similar Democrats are to one another, they might say something like ‘Oh, Democrats come from all walks of life – we’re a diverse group.’  If then asked to describe Republicans, they might say, ‘Oh, those Republicans – all they care about is lower taxes.  They’re all alike.’  We also tend to prefer members of our own group.  In general, a group will be perceived differently, and more accurately, but its own members than by outsiders.”

So while the in/out-group bias has an ugly side, it actually can be used for good.  A sense of belonging is the first step to understanding others, not vice-versa.  That idea has huge implications for schools and classrooms.  Students need to feel as though they belong so that they can understand the diversity within their school family.  If they see themselves as part of the in-group, then they are more likely to understand all of differences within that grouping.

Which seems a little seems counter-intuitive….  Isn’t it by understanding our similarities and differences that we feel a sense of belonging?  Don’t we start with understanding and then move to belonging? 

Not exactly.  

Think again about the case that Daniel J. Levitin uses: Democrats Vs. Republicans.  Generalizations and allowances are made for (and by) people that might never meet.  They grouped first, and sought to understand second.  

My favourite case that Levitin refered to in his book was a study where a group was defined by winning a coin toss!  Following the group’s win, “there was a robust in-group/out-group effect even in this ad hoc grouping.”

Something to think about as the year begins.  

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