Member Networks: Why Do People Want To Belong?

Darryl Howes MSc examines the social science behind why people become part of a group and how the membership profession might make use of this.

Headshot - Darryl HowesGroups are an important part of what makes us human. Researchers have suggested that groups are an important source of personal pride and self-esteem and provide a sense of social identity.

In this article, we’ll examine three aspects of group membership highlighted by social science and what these mean for the membership profession.

In Groups and Out Groups

We perceive groups as a conduit to our own self-image. And enhancing the status of the group to which we belong is one way to improve this.

This willingness to belong and to draw distinctions appears to develop early. In 2013, schoolchildren participated in research1 which involved telling some they were members of a ‘blue’ group that were talented jigsaw puzzle completers.

The Blue group children wore a blue t-shirt, sat on a blue chair, and the puzzle box had a blue sticker on it. They were further told that another group of children, the ‘Green’ group generally did things other than complete puzzles.

Individually, each child went on to complete a jigsaw task. The researchers believe that a child allocated to the Blue ‘in-group’ readily internalised the purpose of the group and drew a marked distinction with the ‘different’ Green ‘out-group’. Indeed, this was enough for them to take between 29% and 35% longer in seeing the jigsaw task through to completion.

For the membership professional, this willingness to distinguish between ‘us and them’ might seem troublesome. Especially so if a culture of collaboration with other like-minded organisations is on the agenda.

But a spirit of friendly competition is not necessarily a bad thing. And the ease by which in-groups can form makes it useful to point out both differences and similarities with partner organisations. It’s also perfectly possible for an individual to feel out-group antagonism from one perspective and in-group affiliation from another.

In short, there’s little point in denying something that is inherent within an individual’s relationship to groups. We should instead draw upon the positives around how in-groups form.


Optimal Distinctiveness

The motivation to be part of groups and alliances has other aspects. For example, the strength of our affiliation with other individuals is dependent in part upon the interests we share.

But also important is the nature of that common interest. The rarer a group value, skill or experience, the more likely it is to facilitate a bond.

Consider the example of two people who meet and learn they share a passion for mountain climbing. How much stronger the bond when they subsequently discover they have each conquered Mount Everest. And stronger still if both completed the more difficult North Ridge route.

And yet stronger, when they can both claim they attained this high-altitude feat without the aid of oxygen masks.

This somewhat extreme case of ‘optimal distinctiveness’2 is what psychologists refer to as ‘uncommon commonality’. People are said to be happier in groups where this is available.

But optimal distinctiveness is based upon a principle of equilibrium. This says we want to fit in, but we might also want to stand out. We want to be alike, but different.

Membership organisations can recognise optimal distinctiveness by facilitating special interest groups, user forums, task and complete committees, specific awards etc. It’s also important to recognise the wish to be alike, by drawing attention to a general affiliation to the parent community overseeing these sub-groups.

Inclusive and Exclusive Networks

Exclusive networks bind us to close, sometimes elite, gatherings (in the UK, alumni of Oxbridge might represent one example). It’s impossible, or at least difficult, for non-members to break into the group.

Conversely, inclusive networks act as a bridge across exclusivity. They offer the power to connect with others who might otherwise remain outside our networking field of vision. There are few barriers to entry and membership is wide and varied.

By analogy, the social scientist Robert D. Putnam refers to the two types as bonding ‘Social Superglue’ and lubricating ‘Social WD40’ respectively3.

A key point here is that the problems we face in our daily working lives have common themes. They invariably involve time, money and people. The difference lies in an individual’s approach to solving these problems.

Although they may involve different contexts, different approaches often provide new and unexpected insights. Connecting across and beyond our normal relations, leveraging upon the benefits of inclusive networks, allows us to access and benefit from the diversity of thought and creativity.

Membership professionals can again recognise and facilitate both exclusive and inclusive networks. And it isn’t a case of either/or; members can benefit from a mix of both types. This can be a strong argument for dual-membership; one membership subscription recognising a very specific expertise on the part of an individual, the other representing a broader, less-defined interest group.

Recognising and understanding where members’ preferences might lie in this respect can be a useful value-add for any membership professional and direct attention to the right kind of strategic alliances with partners.

It’s through belonging to a group, that we feel as if we are a part of something bigger and more important than ourselves. A better understanding of how individuals relate to groups can help inform membership professional practice for the better.

Darryl Howes MSc, speaker and published author, is the Managing Director of Strategic Business Networking®. He works with organisations to develop membership engagement and networking and career management skills.

Connect with Darryl on Twitter @DarrylHowes or via LinkedIn


  1. Master, A., and Walton, G. (2013). Minimal Groups Increase Young Children’s Motivation and Learning on Group-Relevant Tasks. Child Development, 84 (2), 737-751.
  2. Brewer, M.B. (1991). The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17, 475-482.
  3. Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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