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Harvard EdCast: A Crisis of Belonging

Social psychologist Geoff Cohen discusses ways we can nurture belonging as educators, parents, and citizens.
Belonging illustration

Social psychologist Geoff Cohen believes a crisis of belonging is destroying us. One in five Americans suffers from chronic loneliness. Young people are struggling with high levels of anxiety and mental health issues at times when they desperately need a sense of connection and belonging. 

“Belonging isn't just a touchy feely construct. It's actually something that touchy feely has hard consequences. It's associated with physical illness, early death, cardiovascular disease, also vulnerability,” says Cohen, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Education. 

Although most of us know what it feels like to be excluded or question our belonging, Cohen says we don't do the greatest job of recognizing that feeling when it happens to others. In fact, we often threaten other people's sense of belonging, he says. It's having a serious effect on our wellbeing. The good news is there are small ways we can change and even nurture belonging as educators, parents, and citizens. 

TRANSCRIPT

JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Social psychologist Geoff Cohen says a crisis of belonging is destroying us. Most of us know what it feels like to be excluded or question our belonging, but he says we don't do the greatest job of recognizing that feeling when it happens to others. 

In fact, we often threaten other people's sense of belonging. It's having a serious effect. One in five Americans suffers from chronic loneliness. Young people are struggling with high levels of anxiety and mental health issues at times when they desperately need a sense of connection and belonging. 

The good news is there are small ways we can change and even nurture belonging as educators, parents, and citizens. First, I asked Geoff to tell me more about what he means when he says there's a crisis of belonging destroying us. 

GEOFFREY COHEN: I co-opted the term from Pete Buttigieg, who used it to describe the state of America, where so many of our connections are frayed, so many people feel economically left behind. And I would add, as our surgeon general has pointed out, Vivek Murthy, that we have what some call an epidemic of loneliness wherein roughly 20% I think of Americans are so lonely that it poses a health risk, a severe health risk as bad as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. 

So on top of that, indicators of division are at a high now, such as political polarization. I think hate crimes are roughly at a 10-year high. So the markers of divisiveness, the indicators of isolation, the feeling of being left behind economically, not being part of a community or a country, are great now. Also as workplaces have changed in their nature and they become less of a place where people get meaning and a sort of lifelong sense of belonging and community, frays to communities, religious associations have opened up because, of all that, I think it is an apt term for the era we're in. Very few groups feel confident in their sense of belonging. And groups that once did are now a bit unmoored and adrift. So I would say that. 

And then what the crisis of belonging implies is that it's a crisis, that this matters. Belonging isn't just a touchy feely construct. It's actually something that touchy feely has hard consequences. It's associated with physical illness, early death, cardiovascular disease, also vulnerability. 

There's some exciting research to hate groups, and extremists, and conspiratorial thinking. When we feel like we don't belong, we become vulnerable to dangerous and ridiculous beliefs with groups that provide us that sense of belonging. So I think, though there are many things contributing to the problems that [? belie ?] our country now, belonging could be one underlying symptom or underlying cause that, if we address it, could have manifold benefits for our society. 

JILL ANDERSON: When I hear that, it just sounds so scary, even though it makes a lot of sense. And you could probably add a whole bunch of more things like our young people seem to have so many mental health issues, and we're seeing so many young males, especially in America, acting out. 

GEOFFREY COHEN: Yes, yes. Half of college students have an anxiety disorder, I think it's the rough figure. And teen suicidality and self cutting among girls is rising. Lots of factors contribute, but it is partly a problem of belonging. 

When you feel like you don't belong or when you have that sense of I'm not part of a larger cause, it turns out there's biological research that suggests that's one of the worst things our central nervous system can say to the rest of our body is you are alone here. It puts us in a sort of fight-or-flight response. That's very good evolutionarily to deal with physical threat, preparing to be wounded, but when it's chronically activated, it can really wreak havoc on our health. 

JILL ANDERSON: How do we course correct for some of this feeling that you don't belong or this crisis of belonging that's happening? 

GEOFFREY COHEN: Well, of course, we need systemic and structural change. We're living through a kind of reckoning with systems of exclusion that have been with us since the founding of our country, so that is very, very important, dismantling these systems of exclusion. 

At the same time, there are little things that we can all do every day to nurture belonging in one another as teachers, as parents, as friends. And that's what the theme of a lot of our research is focused on is just the small things we can do every day to make things a little bit better, and if we all do them, we can make things a lot better. 

For instance, something as simple as being polite to other people, research suggests, saying please and thank you, that is a powerful indication that I see you as belonging in the circle of those to whom I should show respect. And I know that seems obvious, but it's actually a really powerful indicator. And there's research showing, for instance, that police officers are not as polite with Black individuals that they pull over in driver stops as they are with white individuals. We accord less respect to those we see as other, and that sends a message that you don't belong. 

A story that really stuck with me was told to me by Mary Rowe, an organizational behaviorist at MIT, who describes that she was a university ombudsman. And a Black employee came to her saying, I'm going to quit here. This feels like a place I don't belong. 

And she said, Mary said, to the Black employee, well, why don't you just keep a log of what happens to you? Let's look at this systematically. Keep a log of what happens here. I really want to understand why the environment is so toxic for you. 

So the employee kept a log, then came back to Mary a week later and shared the log. Mary opened it and saw nothing. What's going on? 

And that was the whole point. The employee said, yeah, the whole time I'm here no one asks me about how my day is going. No one expresses appreciation for the work I've done. I feel like I'm not even seen. And so the problem lay in what wasn't said a lack of basic collegiality. That's one example of politeness. 

A second example is research on what we call affirmations, values, affirmations, or self affirmations, and these are things that we can do in our day-to-day lives to create a channel or opening in a situation where people can express who they are and what they value and feel valued for it. And in a number of studies that my colleagues and I and others have done, we found that the simple act, for instance, of just asking students to reflect on, what is core to you? What are your most important values? What would you stand up for? What would you die for? What is really dear to your heart? Giving students the opportunity to write about their core values in the classroom has been found, under some circumstances, to have these wide-ranging benefits, closing achievement gaps in GPA, even after just a few sessions of doing these kinds of activities, improving health and well-being, leading to greater retention throughout high school and college. And this has been replicated in several studies. 

It doesn't happen all the time, but in schools and classrooms where there are resources and pathways to success, if I now feel like this is a place where my whole self is accepted. I'm more likely to seize those opportunities. So these are just examples of many of little things we can all do to make the situations a lot better. 

JILL ANDERSON: It seems like we know belonging is this condition for success. We know students do better if they feel like they belong. But why is it that, so often in education, we seem to just have students leave their full identity at the door? Our doors are open, but you're not really welcome to bring your full self into that. 

GEOFFREY COHEN: I have a friend who was teaching at a school, and she said one of the bits of advice she got was don't smile until winter break. You got to keep up a tough demeanor with these teenagers, in her case. I think that's really bad advice. I think a lot of schools would be much better off if they supported students' need to connect, especially with adults. 

I think elementary schools generally do a pretty good job of nurturing connection and belonging among students, but then it's as if, when students enter middle school, that transition to seventh grade, things just-- the policies and the ways we structure our schools are peculiarly mismatched. For instance, students at that age really, as she says, want to connect with adults, but now they're circling through different teachers throughout the day. 

They like to mingle and talk to other kids, but the cardinal value of middle schools and high schools is often punctuality. There's a bell that rings to get to class — it's actually a ritual borrowed from the factory-- as well as divisive zero-sum policies. We're getting better in some contexts, like honor roles and limited slots in sports and extracurricular activities. 

These are all policy decisions and resource issues that undermine students' need to connect. So there are kind of existing aspects of many middle schools and high schools that seem almost uncannily mismatched to students' needs to connect. And so we could start there. We could start there by changing the schools in ways that promote connection. 

I love some of this old research on cooperative learning, the jigsaw classroom by Elliot Aronson, [INAUDIBLE] honors workshops in college settings, the pure instructional model in physics, where, basically, you harness students need to belong by having them learn in groups. So that's one simple thing that can be done. But there are many, many other little things that we can do to create greater connection. 

Two other barriers beyond the contextual aspects of schools that get in the way of nurturing belonging that I just want to call out, one is stereotypes. So too many of us unconsciously and, sometimes consciously, stereotype individuals as being troublemakers if they're in certain groups. And research by Jason Okonofua and Jennifer Eberhardt shows that teachers are way too quick to judge a Black student who misbehaves in class as a troublemaker and apply punitive decisions, like detention and suspension, to them in reaction relative to the same behavior when it happens from a white student. 

Those [INAUDIBLE] reactions actually really undermine belonging. They aggravate the underlying problem. Often, students are acting out because they don't feel connected. They feel like they don't belong, and then when we punish them or send them to detention or especially suspend them — not a good idea at all — aggravate the underlying belonging uncertainty that contributes to the problem. 

So stereotyping, and then lastly, the other causal culprit here is what my colleague Lee Ross calls the fundamental attribution error. We think that what causes misbehavior amongst students is something internal, their character or their ability, when, oftentimes, it's their circumstances or how they're perceiving them. And if we can better understand those circumstances, we can better support them. 

But instead, we're too quick to judge. We think that troublesome behavior reflects a troublesome student, and we act in a punitive way that just worsens the problem. So the fundamental attribution error, this tendency to think — to downplay the importance of students circumstances and to overemphasize the importance of character and ability is another culprit here to the crisis of belonging, at least in our school settings but probably beyond. 

JILL ANDERSON: As you're talking, I'm thinking about belonging as just a social thing, where it feels maybe, in some ways, like it is disconnected from the actual practice of teaching. But in reality, that is not true. You tend to think of belonging, especially in the teen years, as just this social entity that kids must feel if they're left out, but it's so much bigger than that. 

GEOFFREY COHEN: The teacher has a lot of power to create it. One of my graduate students, Joseph Moore, has done some studies where he's just asked people to remember their most important teacher. Often, it's from their teenage years, and yeah, one thing they single out about 50% of time is that, wow, they were really good teachers, great at instruction. 

But just as often, they say this teacher really made me feel like I belonged. Often, they'll say something like, they saw more in me than what I saw in myself and helped me to become that person, to reach a higher standard. And so I think teachers have so much capacity to create that sense of connection. 

Of course, the teacher isn't going to solve all the problems, and there are so many factors that contribute to kids not belonging. But teachers, like all of us in every encounter, have a power to create situations right here right now that help people to feel included. And you can always do a little bit better. You can always create a little bit more inclusion than there is. 

I love that old study by Rosenthal and Jacobson. I know it's controversial in educational circles, but I think it still stood the test of time and been replicated several times. All they do is to inform teachers that some of the students in their classrooms will be intellectual bloomers, but unbeknownst to the teachers, those students who are singled out as intellectual bloomers were just randomly chosen. Then they found, at the end of the year, that those earmarked students ended up getting higher IQ scores, gaining more in their IQ than the nonearmarked students, the students who had not been singled out as bloomers, which just says, wow, teachers can create classrooms that are more likely to draw out students' potential if they believe in them.
 
JILL ANDERSON: Wow. You've mentioned value affirmation exercises, and I want to dig a little bit more into that because I think it's really interesting stuff, and how those can combat stereotype threat, and be helpful for students before they take tests, when they're applying to college. What do value affirmation exercises look like in practice? 

GEOFFREY COHEN: Values affirmations often take the form of a worksheet or a packet of writing prompts, and the first page is a menu of values that present students with various different values, such as compassion, relationships, kindness, creativity. And students are asked to indicate which of the values on the list are most important to them. 

And then, on a second page of the activity, they write about why those values are important to them, why do they matter, and maybe some times in their lives in which they mattered. And we've done these studies. It comes out of research by Claude Steele on self-affirmation theory, and we've done these studies. I've read probably hundreds, maybe thousands of these essays, and they're almost always heartfelt. 

And oftentimes, the kids who have a history of poor performance or who feel less belonging in school, like as measured by our surveys, often have the most to say. It's actually really interesting. I just remember one kid who wrote about how taking care of his mother, who was sick, represented his values of family and connection. And he wasn't doing so well in school, but this activity brought to the fore something really powerful for him. 

So even though the activity seems really small, it's bringing out into the situation something really deep and powerful for the kids. And the writing activity is just one way to do this. I'm sure there's other ways to do this, like through conversations with kids, getting to know them, activities where kids get to talk about what's important to them or present it. 

But this is just one, and what it does is it helps students to feel whole in the classroom, to feel like their whole self is seen. And that's one of the key messages of belonging is you are seen here. This is a place where your whole self is recognized. 

And that's what we found is that little kind of activity, these values affirmations, can be very beneficial for students' motivation, sense of belonging, their persistence in school, their GPA. In one study, we found that just doing this activity three to five times throughout the year in their seventh grade increased the percentage of students who went on to a four-year college years later by 20 percentage points, which seemed to set in motion like, oh, my whole self is recognized here, I can feel at ease, perform better, and put them on a positive trajectory. 

That happens under certain circumstances as we talked about. So that's values affirmations, and in that case, it was especially effective for African Americans. They often work best for those students who are seen as outsiders, the ones who feel like their whole self isn't fully accepted here. These activities have the biggest impact for those groups. 

JILL ANDERSON: How do educators critique students work in a way that reinforces belonging? 

GEOFFREY COHEN: The second message of belonging-- so there's that message of you are seen. A second message is you have potential. You have the potential to succeed. I believe in you. There is more here that you're capable of than what you are currently manifesting. 

So that message, you have potential to succeed, maybe to contribute to a larger mission, is also key. And one of the ways that we can send that message is through the criticism that we give to students. In some research with Claude Steele and David Jager, Valerie Purdie-Greenaway, and others, we worked with college students and middle school students, and we just looked at that situation, where they get critical feedback. 

Now, that moment is a key moment because, when you get criticism, you can do one or two things. You can dismiss it, or respond defensively, or attribute it to bias on the part of the teacher. Or you can take it seriously and learn from it. 

And we're forever given the gift of criticism, and what we do with it is really key. So we looked at that moment. We had teachers in this one study — these were seventh grade teachers — give students critical feedback, serious critical feedback, on an essay that they had written. And we told the teachers just write whatever criticism or encouragement you would usually write on these essays that you give to students. 

Then for one-half of the students, we had the teacher append a note that said, I'm giving you this critical feedback because I have high standards and because I believe in your potential to reach them. And that was it. The other half of the students received a control note that said, I'm giving you this feedback so you have comments on your essay. 

And teachers were blind to condition. I'm going to spare you the methodological details, but they didn't know which students got which notes because they penned the notes in advance. And we, the researchers, tagged them to the essays. And then we looked at the impact. 

This little note had a big impact, especially for students who were from negatively stereotyped groups so, in this case, African-American or Black students. Among Black students who received the control note, only 17% revised their essay when given the opportunity. But for African-American students who got that note, that I believe in your potential, 71% revised their essay. 

JILL ANDERSON: Wow. 

GEOFFREY COHEN: More than quadrupling the percentage. It's so interesting to me because I think if you were a teacher and saw that 17% revision rate, you'd say, oh, what is going on with my students? Are they just under motivated? 

We would commit the fundamental attribution error. We think there's something lacking in them. But what we would miss is our power to create a situation where what's inside them is more likely to come out into the situation, and here, just took a little note, saying, I believe in your potential. 

Not only that, these little things can have big domino effects under some circumstances. Years later, we found that the students who got that wise feedback note about five or six years later, they got in less trouble in the next academic year. Getting in less trouble, they were on a better academic trajectory, and they were more likely to make it into college compared with those students who... Black students who got the control note. 

So as teachers, we have power that we often don't even see because we don't know how our words set in motion these virtuous, sometimes vicious, cycles, leading students to destinations that we often never hear about. But in this study, we quantified that impact, conveying that message at a key formative moment in student's development, the seventh grade, the transition to middle school, had these ripple effects. You have potential led them to show grit, become more gritty, and become more successful over the long term. 

JILL ANDERSON: That's so unbelievable, huge. 

GEOFFREY COHEN: I just find it incredibly inspirational. We all have this power to make things a little bit better. And I don't want to be pollyannaish. I'm not saying that this is the whole solution. 

And these kinds of activities, these practices, they have effects only under certain circumstances. It's key that, first and foremost, there are resources for learning. Students are getting critical feedback. They're in a pretty good school. We're looking at a relatively decent functioning school. 

And under those circumstances, when there are real opportunities to learn, yeah, just make me feel a little better, a little more believed in, and it's like a chain reaction that starts building on itself over time. I do want to make it really clear, though, that, yeah, if those resources are lacking, like if a student really doesn't know how to spell, for instance, or if there's no resources for learning how to spell, then there's no message that's going to change that reality. 

JILL ANDERSON: One area that's always challenging is the teenage years. We've already talked about the growing issue of mental health with teens and young people. How can we better support teens through these transitions in their life to make sure that they feel connected and feel like they belong? 

GEOFFREY COHEN: One of the things I do with my own kids is just to convey that message I refer to as a third message of belonging, you are not alone here. We have your back. So there's three messages of belonging we discuss here. 

One is you are seen. The second is you have potential. And the third and final one is you're not alone. You're not alone. We're here for you, and that message is just so important, especially when people are going through challenges. 

I don't know if you felt this, but there's been times in my life, where, wow, man, I don't know if I can get through this. And then I'll go talk to a friend or even someone I don't even know that well and have a pretty good conversation. I suddenly feel energized and revitalized, at least a little bit. Even though they don't solve the problem, just feel like having someone at my back gives me a higher perch from which to view the challenge. I feel lifted. 

So one of the things I did with my kids is to just make it clear I'm here. If there's a problem, I want to know about it. And I think too often with teenagers we're talking at them rather than with them, and so I just try to be available. That's the first and foremost, and if they know you're available, the key impact of that is then they come to you later when the problems get more significant. 

You are there. You're available without judgment. Just listening and being available is really, really key. I do think that the focus on disciplining teenagers gets in the way of this. We hear about some troublesome behavior they've engaged in. 

I remember my kid once did something regrettable, and we were talking about it. I was like, well, why did you do that? And the urge to discipline him it was so great. I just wanted to chastise him. 
But we had a discussion, and it became clear it was about needing to fit in. the reason he did this. And he said something that stuck with me. He's like, yeah, sometimes I care more about my ego than about myself. 

And I was like, yeah, that's wisdom. And so I think having those kinds of conversations are really key. There's some nice research showing that, when you put teenagers in the MRI and you have them listen to audio files of their mother lecturing at them, their brains basically shut down. [LAUGHS] Not totally shut down, but the regions associated with perspective taking and empathy are less activated, as if they're distancing themselves. 

I, instead, talk with them, and there's a lot of research suggesting that this is possible. Judy Harackiewicz and her lab has some wonderful research applying this in the domain of academic achievement in STEM, where they simply train parents to have conversations with their teenagers about science and their daily lives, how it relates to technology, and cell phones, and social media. 

They have conversations. So rather than just kind of telling them, telling their kids how science is important, they have conversations that help kids to reach that conclusion for themselves. And they find that increases kids performance and interest in science and even, I think, years later, increases their likelihood, as I recall, majoring in STEM in college. As I recall, there was a bit of evidence of that. 

So talking with kids, doing what Nick Epley calls — and Juliana Schroeder call perspective getting. Getting people's perspective. I want to know what your situation is. Tell me about it. 

JILL ANDERSON: What does it mean to truly belong? 

GEOFFREY COHEN: What it means to truly belong is to be accepted for who you are. I think that is true, and that's something we're always searching for. We feel it at that place called home, which is a psychological experience more than a brick-and-mortar place. It is that feeling of we are accepted, fully accepted, for who we are. 

And of course, you can never attain that perfectly, but you can get a little bit closer. And I feel as though those places, such as middle schools, and high schools, and colleges, would-- a lot of the problems, they wouldn't disappear, but they would subside a bit if people felt more at home. 

I remember that debacle at Yale University a number of students were upset about. There's was a suggestion that students not wear any costumes that were racially or culturally offensive. I don't want to get into too many details, but there was a big brouhaha, a big conflict, confrontation between faculty and students. 

At the end of a big yelling match, one student just cried out, this isn't about freedom of speech. Of course, freedom of speech is important. Absolutely. She said, it's about creating a home. It's about creating a home. 

And I think once people feel at home, then they're far more venturesome, far more able to sit at the table, and have free speech, and talk, and embrace different perspectives. But if that's not there, then it leads to all kinds of sensitivities and vulnerabilities that get in the way of creating a truly inclusive place, institution, community, even society. 

JILL ANDERSON: Right. Well, thank you so much, Geoff, this is really amazing and insightful. 

GEOFFREY COHEN: Thank you so much, Jill. It was delightful to talk with you. 

JILL ANDERSON: Geoff Cohen is a social psychologist and professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. He's the author of Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.