Around this time each year, the students in my Psychology Class study the concept of motivation – why we do what we do. We explore the motivations behind hunger, thirst, achievement and one of my personal favorites, the need to affiliate. The word ‘affiliation’ is not one that we use often, so let me explain its meaning. To affiliate means that we “flock together”. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we form a close, lasting relationship, but it does mean that we have a need to be with others. Affiliation is a type of social motivation. The need to belong and the need for emotional intimacy are the other components of this type of motivation.
As children and as adults we all require a certain amount of quality contact with others to feel good. In fact, if we deprive others of this social contact using punishments like solitary confinement it can cause some serious problems such as heart disease, depression, and premature death. When we are rejected socially our brains actually respond in the same way as when we are experiencing physical pain.
We form bonds quickly, even when we don’t need to. I am a person who frequently talks to others while waiting in line (my kids were always embarrassed when I did that). I am not sure why I do this, but I suppose it has to do with a shared experience of not having anything else to do while waiting, or just being miserable that I am wasting my time in this line – misery loves company! Others I know form bonds with people during an elevator ride in the hospital or while riding up to a job interview. Or, on the long ride down, when you’re not sure if you “landed the job”. We seem to be drawn to these conversations. You don’t have to look very far to see that we are programmed to affiliate with others.
One of the most famous psychological studies on the concept of affiliation was done by Stanley Schacter in 1959. Working as a social psychology professor at Yale University, Schacter was interested in studying our motivation to be with other people in the same space. He divided the students who volunteered for his experiment into two groups. The first group was instructed by a severe, mean-tempered research assistance by the name of Dr. Zilstein who told them that they were going to be severely shocked during the experiment, and these shocks were going to be painful. The other group met a “mild mannered” professor who told them that they would receive shocks that would feel no worse than a “tickling” on their hands. The groups were then told that they had to wait for the experiment to begin. They could choose to wait alone in a separate room or they could choose to wait together with others. Where do you think the students in Dr. Zilstein’s group chose to wait? You guess it, with others! The moral of the story (experiment) in times of stress we prefer to be with others.
Although affiliation is important, we humans seem to need more than to just “hang out” with each other. Most of us are also looking to belong, feel as if we are a part of a group. This belonging seems to involve two important factors: frequently positive interactions with others (doing things together that are fun!!), and a stable, enduring relationship (meeting in an elevator one time just isn’t the same as an enduring friendship). Maintaining close personal relationships where we feel like we belong is probably the single most important factor in human happiness and life satisfaction. We need to be needed and feel that we belong.
If the need to belong is not fulfilled and we feel rejected by others we can experience severe emotional turmoil. Believe it or not, this distress can even be felt when we are rejected by a computer. When people are rejected by unknown internet partners while playing computer games, they actually change their behavior and even risk losing the game to ensure they are not rejected again. Amazingly these same behaviors occur if people in research studies are told that they are playing against a computer and not other humans!! We change our behavior to make sure the computer doesn’t reject us. What a powerful need we have for affiliation!
I began this blog post talking about the students in my online psychology class. As we study this concept of affiliation motivation, I always challenge them to think of their affiliations. Are they engaging with others? Do they feel needed and connected to people in their own lives? After all teens and young adults are one of the most vulnerable populations when it comes to feeling rejected and lonely. Often in our class we begin discussing these connections, and my students begin to bond with one another. If you think about it, our class actually fulfills the two components of belonging – weekly interactions (classes) that are fun (at least I think they are), and stable relationships (we meet for 8 months of class, and many students continue to stay in contact after the class has finished). This leads me to believe that even internet class connections are ways to help our students form positive, and in some cases, long term bonds with others. These classes help students fulfill important affiliation and belonging needs.
Bonnie Gonzalez has 36 years of experience as a counselor and is passionate about helping families apply the latest research in their home schools. She teaches Introduction to Psychology for Aim Academy as well as the Secrets of Success mini-course series. Her upcoming Secrets of Success summer course helps students learn how to persevere in the face of failure. You can learn more about the seven week course here.