How The Need to Fit In Changes Our Behaviour

All this week on Family Anatomy we'll be focusing on the phenomenon of "fitting-in" or belonging. Belonging is a fundamental need stemming from the fact that human beings are social creatures. Over the past two decades, researchers have established that peoples' behaviour can be predictably changed by manipulating their perception of fitting-in.

In 2005, an experiment by Gardner, Pickett, Jefferies, and Knowles found that people who scored low on feelings of exclusion or rejection, had more accurate judgments and recall of negative and positive social cues including facial expressions and vocal tone. The implication of this research is that a high need to be accepted socially can distort our social perceptions. In 2007, a study by Maner, DeWall, Baumeister, and Schaller found that feelings of exclusion led people to want to be with others more often, see new potential friends in a more positive light, and be more friendly than would otherwise be the case when interacting with people who represent good prospects for future friendship.

In order to study this phenomenon experimentally researchers typically set up experiments where people are given a message of social rejection. They follow this by seeing how this knowledge about themselves affects their behaviour. An example of this manipulation might consist of study participants being given false feedback after completing a personality questionnaire. For instance, some participants would be told that their personality predicts that they would be alone in the future and others that they would have stable, rewarding relationships into the future. The experimenters would then run socially focused experiments to see how the knowledge that they would be alone or in good relationships affected their social behaviour.

This type of experiment was conducted by DeWall, Maner and Rouby in the U.S. and was published earlier this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers wanted to look at the first signs of behaviour change produced by the need to fit-in. While previous research looked at large changes in behaviour such as those mentioned above, these researchers wanted to study something very basic and early in the chain of these behaviours - selective attention to smiling faces. What they found was that compared to non-excluded participants, subjects that were given an rejection message were faster at identifying and maintaining their attention on smiling faces. On the other hand, there was no difference between the two groups in identifying faces that conveyed social disapproval or neutral expressions. The experiment suggests that the need to belong motivates positive pro-social behaviour. In general, it also appears that feelings of rejection do not make people more likely to screen for signs of disapproval in others. Looked at together these studies indicate that our need to belong is powerful and that any distortions that result from this need are designed to increase our experience of belonging or fitting in.

Visit us all week at Family Anatomy for more information and research on fitting-in.

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