Need to Belong

The Need to Belong Definition

The need to belong refers to the idea that humans have a fundamental motivation to be accepted into relation-ships with others and to be a part of social groups. The fact that belongingness is a need means that human beings must establish and maintain a minimum quantity of enduring relationships. These relationships should have more positivity than negativity and be meaningful and significant to the relationship partners.

The Need to Belong Background and History

Need to BelongThe psychological history of a belongingness motive has a long history, with psychologists including Sigmund Freud recognizing that humans need to be a part of groups and relationships. Freud believed that the desire for relationships comes from people’s sex drive or was connected more to bonds between parents and children. Abraham Maslow, whose great psychological legacy was to create a motivational hierarchy, put belongingness needs in between satisfying physical needs (such as being fed and getting enough sleep) and needs for self-esteem. Thus, these early psychologists recognized that humans strive to be a part of relationships, but they did not place supreme significance on this drive.

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John Bowlby was probably the first psychologist to develop the idea that belongingness is a special need and was one of the first to perform experimental tests on the idea. Bowlby is best known for his attachment theory, which says that people’s early relationships with their caregivers (e.g., parents) are the foundation for how people will respond to others in close, intimate relationships for the rest of their lives. Bowlby saw that people varied in how they behaved toward people they were close to, and that these variations could be observed among children and their mothers.

The most influential version of the need to belong theory was proposed by Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, whose theory put relationship needs as one of the most important needs that humans must fulfill. They compared satisfying the need to belong to securing necessities, such as food and shelter, which are needed to survive. Baumeister and Leary said that satisfying the belongingness motive requires that two aspects of relationships be met: The first part is that people need to have positive and pleasant, not negative, interactions with others. The second part specifies that these interactions cannot be random but, rather, should take place as part of stable, lasting relationships in which people care about each other’s long-term health and well-being.

The reason that the need to belong is essential for humans is that being a part of groups and intimate relationships helped humans to survive in ancestral history. When enemies would attack, when animals would prey, or when it was difficult to find food or shelter, those people who were part of a group were more likely to survive than was the lone man or woman needing to fend for himself or herself. Reproduction too was much easier with another person, as is fairly obvious, and those people who could get into and start a part of a band of others were more likely to have offspring and thus pass their genes onto future generations of humans. Even if loners can create a pregnancy by having sex during a chance encounter with one another, those children would be less likely to survive to adult-hood than would children who grow up supported and protected by a group. In these ways, evolution likely favored early humans with a stronger need to belong, and so today’s humans are mainly descended from them—and therefore probably inherited that strong need.

Although early theories about the need to belong emphasized one-to-one relationships, more recent work has made clear that larger groups can satisfy the need also. Some people (and perhaps men more than women) can feel connected to a large group, such as a team or company or university, and this bond can take the place of intimate relationships to some extent.

Importance and Consequences of the Need to Belong

The importance of the need to belong was documented by Baumeister and Leary when they detailed the emotional, cognitive, and physical aspects of the need to belong. One way to look at the importance of the need to belong is to document what happens when the need is unmet. The reason that scientists would examine the consequences of an unsatisfied need to belong is the same reason that scientists would need to study what happens when people fail to get enough food or water; not having enough of something and seeing the negative outcomes that follow gives meaningful scientific information that the missing piece (in this case, relationships with others) is essential for healthy functioning.

Support for need to belong idea was demonstrated by research showing that social bonds are formed easily and without the need for special circumstances or additions. Even when people must part (such as when graduating from college), they are often quite upset about having to part and consequently make promises to keep the relationships going through visits, mail, telephone, and so on. Sometimes people who are not going to see each other again will say “see you soon” as a parting because the idea of not seeing someone again is too unsettling to say aloud.

There are cognitive (mental) components to the need to belong. For instance, people seem to categorize information in terms of relationships, and they readily see relationships between people, even when they do not exist. Have you ever been at a store and had the clerk ask if you and the person next to you in line (a stranger) are on the same bill? This is an example of people’s tendency to see relationships between others. When two people are part of a couple, the cognitive representations of the self and the partner get clumped together in mind, making it so that information about the partner is classified in a similar manner as to the self. When relationships break up, people find themselves thinking about the relationship partner over and over again, with thoughts of the other person intruding into other thoughts.

Emotions play a large role in the formation and dissolution of relationships. When people make a new friend or fall in love, they experience happiness and joy. Getting into a desired social group, such as a sorority or academic club, brings people happiness. Despite the stress that comes from having a child, people are excited about becoming a parent before it happens, express positivity with being a parent (usually) during the child’s years at home, and look back on the experience as being joyful and rewarding. Having a new relationship, especially one as central to the person as having one’s own child, is likely responsible for those good feelings. In fact, being happy with one’s life is largely the result of how many relationships one has and how satisfying those relationships are. Although people may think that money makes them happy, it turns out that being a part of happy, stable relationships is a much bigger influence on happiness.

Conversely, when people are excluded from groups or their relationships fall apart, they feel a variety of negative emotions. Anxiety is one of the primary forms of negative emotions resulting from a loss of a relationship, with children as young as 1 year old showing separation anxiety when they must be without their mothers for some time. Depression and sadness too can result from not being accepted into groups or relationships, and often depression and anxiety go hand in hand when people feel rejected. Jealousy is another negative feeling that is directly related to interpersonal bonds. Jealousy is the feeling that someone is going to (or has) taken away some-thing that one has and does not want to lose (such as a special relationship partner). More than 50% of people say they are jealous people, and the number may be even higher than that because some people try to hide their jealousy. Loneliness is a chronic state of feeling that one does not have enough satisfying relationships. Loneliness is more than not having social contact because a person could have multiple interactions throughout the day but still feel lonely. Feeling lonely is an example of how interactions must take place in the context of long-lasting relationships to satisfy the need to belong.

Researchers have documented physical ills that occur when people are not part of groups or relationships. For instance, married people have better health than single, divorced, or widowed people. Married people live longer, have fewer physical health problems, and have fewer mental health problems. Married people who are diagnosed with cancer survive longer than do single people who have similar forms of cancer. Lonely people are especially known to have ill health. Researchers have studied lonely people for some time and have shown that they get more common illnesses, such as head colds and the flu, as well as have weakened immune systems more generally. Women who have eating disorders are more likely to have had troubled relationships with their mothers when they were young. Veterans who feel they have a lot of social support are less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder when they return from battle. In short, people have higher quality lives and live longer when they feel a part of supportive, caring relationships.

Individual Differences in the Need to Belong

People differ in how much they need to be around others and how badly it hurts not to have other people accept them. Mark Leary and his colleagues created a scale, the Need to Belong Scale, to measure people’s individual needs for acceptance. People who score high on the Need to Belong Scale want badly to be accepted into social interactions and react strongly to being excluded. People who score low on the scale desire fewer close relationships, although again a minimum number of close ties are important for all human beings.


  • Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.