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Maslow Be Damned: How Social Belonging Trumps Everything

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The need for social belonging is the primal human need – and failure to have it satisfied is subjectively worse than death.


Social Pain Causes Suicide

People don’t commit suicide out of just any sorrow.

What suffering, specifically, is bad enough to cause people to want to pull the plug on existence itself? It is only and exclusively social pain.

The most modern, scientific model of the causes of suicide that we have is that articulated by Thomas Joiner in his 2005 book Why People Die By Suicide (my review here). Joiner’s model, supported by a large body of empirical evidence, posits three conditions that reliably predict suicide: a failure of social belonging, the perception of oneself as a burden on others, and the development of competence in actually carrying out the difficult act of suicide. Only the competence factor is not a direct function of social belonging.

Other kinds of pain aren’t sufficient to cause suicide – not hunger, not remorse, not even extreme physical pain. The research suggests that being a valued member of a social group, with a role to play in supporting others, is the most basic human need – not just on par with, but frequently surpassing other human needs such as those for food, shelter, sleep, and sex.

For example, the misery of prison is primarily one of failed social belonging. In the general population, marriage is protective against suicide, as is employment. But married prisoners and prisoners who were employed prior to incarceration are more likely to commit suicide than unmarried, unemployed prisoners. For the first group, incarceration represents a severance of important social bonds and a failure of belonging. For the second group, prison may merely be a continuation of previous social belonging experiences.

The fear of death itself may be, when reduced to its essence, primarily a fear of the ultimate social cutting-off, the final ostracism. The data on suicide and social belonging support the idea of suicide as revealed preference – that the value of life is not as high as the negative value of complete social ostracism. This is in contrast to the idea of suicide as necessarily irrational and a product of mental illness.

Hunger and Sympathy

The United Nations reported in 2009 that over one billion people are hungry in the world; that number currently grows by about a hundred million a year. The suffering of physical hunger is the easiest form of suffering to empathize with; indeed, a recent Foreign Policy article noted that the statistic of a billion hungry “grabbed headlines in a way that any number of World Bank estimates of how many poor people live on less than a dollar a day never did.”

Here’s the fascinating thing about hunger, though: as bad as prolonged malnutrition is – and we all agree that it is very bad – poor, hungry people do not spend every extra cent on more calories.

When staples like wheat and rice are subsidized so that people may buy them at a cheaper price, in many cases they buy less of the staple, and more meat and shrimp. People suffering from severe malnutrition (wasting, growth stunting) still spend money on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Starving families still have televisions and cellular phones.

One response to this is to harden one’s heart: if they’re not hungry enough to spend every spare rupee on more calories, they must not be hungry enough to deserve our sympathy (much less our money).

A more productive response would be to view the data for what they are: evidence that some things are more painful than hunger. Specifically, the need for social belonging is more pressing than the need for food. Alcohol and tobacco are addictive substances, but a quick look at actual practices reveals that they are generally used socially (as in the fixed men’s social groups that smoke together late into the night, in the 600-person Indian village Christopher Alexander studies in the appendix to his Notes on the Synthesis of Form). Spending on “festivals” is by its nature social. Television, described by one interviewee in the Foreign Policy article as “more important than food,” functions both as a social focus for actual people, and a pleasant, comforting substitute for actual socialization. (Cellular phones need no explanation.) Even the “better tasting” food the poor seem to buy rather than more cheap, boring, nutritious food – the meat and shrimp from the China wheat study – is “high status” food, conveying a social message at least as important as its nutritional function.

As I have stated before, poverty doesn’t just suck – it hurts. I think it a valid hypothesis that poverty is actually dreadfully painful – not only physically, but emotionally and socially. There is only so much pain we can expect a being to endure before his attempts to relieve it through future-damaging means becomes perfectly understandable and, in fact, rational.

What We Know About Social Pain

Why and how do we perceive social pain and social belonging, and how do these perceptions affect us? A recent body of research has provided some surprising answers.

  1. Social pain hurts like physical pain. fMRI studies have demonstrated that the pain of perceived social rejection involves the same brain regions as physical pain. Social pain even responds to acetaminophen!
  2. Social pain is ubiquitous. Everyone experiences it, even if they don’t register it as such. People experience about one episode of social ostracism per day.
  3. Social pain is irrational. Subjects experience pain and lowered mood as a consequence of social ostracism even when they are explicitly told that it is merely a computer doing the “ostracizing.” The pain of exclusion affects even people playing a computer ball game who are told their computers are not yet connected to the other computers, making inclusion logically impossible! Even ostracism by a despised outgroup – say, the KKK – induces the same misery as ostracism by other groups.
  4. Social pain affects individuals differently. A normal individual will experience depressed mood after minor social exclusion, but will recover within 45 minutes. A person with social anxiety will not have recovered even from a minor social exclusion after 45 minutes. Repeated exposure to cues of social rejection may even sensitize individuals to these cues, resulting in even more needless pain.
  5. What about autists? A 2011 study found that the brains of adolescents with autistic spectrum disorder did not process cues of social rejection the same as neurotypical brains, but they were just as hurt and concerned after experiencing social rejection! Not even autistic folks are immune from the pain of failed social belonging.

(For more on this fascinating subject, here are lists of publications for Kip Williams and Naomi Eisenberger, two major researchers in the field of social pain and ostracism. Williams’ “Ostracism: The Kiss of Social Death” is an excellent introduction to the field.)

To sum up, social pain is more common, more painful, and less rational than is widely understood. Experiencing social pain is not optional; unfortunately, neither is causing social pain. By virtue of being born, each of us will cause innumerable incidents of social pain in others throughout our lives – most commonly without realizing it at all. But it’s actually much worse than that, because one of the most common, effective responses to experiencing social ostracism is aggression toward others, even others not involved in the original ostracism event. Negative ripples spread out from each incident of social pain – and all the while the proximate source of the social pain may be entirely unaware of having caused it.

Analysis of a Decision to Smile

To illustrate the problem, consider the following everyday decision: whether or not to smile at a passing stranger.

A conscientious actor with a passing familiarity with evolutionary psychology literature will know that smiling at a stranger is potentially damaging, especially if the actor is attractive. When a woman smiles and acts warmly toward a man, he becomes less satisfied with his current partner. So smiling at a stranger may damage his relationship – negatively affecting not just him, but those around him as well, such as his partner and children.

However, the actor must also be aware that failing to smile may induce feelings of social ostracism in the stranger. This will not only cause the stranger suffering (especially if he happens to have social anxiety), but may cause him to act aggressively toward others to recover from the social pain.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the idea of the hedonic treadmill – the fact that an increase in welfare (say, from winning the lottery) does not lead to greater happiness, but causes one to reset one’s expectations at a higher level. A benefit may only make the same level of happiness more expensive. I hope that this example illustrates that there is also an altruistic treadmill. It is impossible to do good for someone, because his expectations will reset to account for the deed. Unfortunately, others – even strangers – already depend on our altruistic inputs to them, and will feel their absence even while their provision would not make them any happier. It’s a Giant’s Drink situation: the only winning move is not to play.

But we’ve already all been forced to play.

The Lonely Modern

In learning about social pain, we have discovered a new Civilization and Its Discontents issue. Philippe Rochat, in a postscript to his excellent Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness, presents a picture of the kind of social life we evolved to experience:

Walking around in South Pacific island traditional villages, during the
day or in the pitch dark of moonless nights, it is almost impossible to cross paths with someone, young or old, woman or man, familiar or absolute stranger, without some greeting, without some acknowledgment of your existence, either called by your name or being asked what you are doing and where you are going, even if the response is very obvious. For individuals like me who grew up in rich postindustrial regions of the world, who struggle for their career and place in society, constantly under the spell of a panic fear of failure, of having failed, or of being an impostor, such simple, yet constant social acknowledgment amounts to the experience of tremendous relief. Finally one experiences the peace of being effortlessly recognized by others, the absolute sense of being socially substantial, as opposed to socially transparent.

This kind of small village experience lifts the curse of social transparency. One rediscovers what might be a long-lost intimacy and bonding with others, something like the absolute trust and acknowledgment we might have experienced once in love or with our mother in the long-lost high-dependence state of infancy. Who knows? What I am convinced of, however, and have tried to convince the reader of this book is that this kind of intimacy and bonding with others that is the wealth of small traditional society is what we all strive for, regardless of where we live and where we grew up. It is the force that leads us toward self-consciousness, probably more forcefully if we grow up in an industrial region of the world. If there is such a thing as a universal criterion for ‘‘the good life,’’ a comfort we would all aspire to, then it must be the sense of social proximity. It must be the sense of being acknowledged and recognized, of being included and intimate with others, no matter what. It is being safe, the ultimate prize and the ultimate refuge. [Emphasis mine.]

Rochat provides a glimpse of the alternative to our modern experience of daily social ostracism and consequent social pain: small village organization. Of course, this is not a real alternative; it is not possible for our enormous, complex modern society to operate in this way. Most of us would not even wish to live in this way, with its concomitant social control and extreme conservatism. I certainly would not. But it demonstrates that we are adapted to something very different than the environment in which we live. And this necessary mismatch – which, in fact, defines us as moderns – ensures that we will all suffer, and make each other suffer, interminably.

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Written by Sister Y

May 18, 2011 at 5:15 pm