The five core social motives: to belong

In Social Motive’s series on the five core social motives, we explore just what it is that drives us to feel, think and act.

According to social psychologist Dr Susan Fiske, the basis behind our decisions in social situations can be distilled into five core motives: trust, understanding, growing, influencing, and belonging.

Understanding these five core social motives is essential to any situation where we interact with other people; in essence, the five core social motives make up the very fabric of our lives.


To Belong

When I think of belonging I think of kindergarten. I was in a class with Year 1 students, one of them being my best friend Sarah – my best friend until the class was separated for two hours one day and I interacted with my year level. I mean, it wasn’t a harrowing life experience; we played dress ups while Sarah’s cohort did math. Still, it was then I decided it would never work. Different worlds. Romeo and Juliet.

Lunch came, and I was carefully unwrapping my Kinder Surprise. Dairy intolerant, I was only in it for the toy; this left Sarah guaranteed at least half of the milk dome every day.

‘It’s a KINDER surprise,’ I spat, like a certain incensed dictator at a Nuremberg rally. My new friend (follower), whose name I don’t remember now and probably barely knew then, giggled, as we shared my chocolate.

Tiny monsters. Reveling in our shared destruction of a seven-year-old.

Fiske recognises belonging as one of the five core social motives, and it’s not difficult to see why it made the cut. To understand the influence of belonging in our lives, we only need to think about what happens in its absence: tragedies like Columbine are blamed on the sense of isolation, not fitting in – tragedies like High School Musical also share an intrinsic relationship with the significance of belonging.

Belonging is the fundamental core motive that drives us as people; anything that has such bearing on us as human beings, and our interactions within the world, has a relationship with business and marketing that cannot be understated. The emergence of new media has intensified this link: within the digital sphere we are all connected, and often whether we like it or not. I have deleted Facebook but have Facebook messenger attached to my mobile phone number, I recently unfollowed a brand on Instagram; they have sponsored content that remains in my feed. You have heard someone say ‘Damn Daniel’. Even Ron Swanson has a mobile phone. It’s impossible to fully disconnect.

But, why would we want to? We are at our best when we are connected in social networks; we suffer when we aren’t – even those of us who are anti-online are pulled to it, for the very simple reason that we want to belong. Once upon a time we had no choice but to belong – we had to work together to meet basic needs, such as food and warmth. Then there are the other things we need in life – love, comfort, and meaning – that are all intrinsically linked to our sense of belonging. Working at a call centre, where I spend my day talking to people who often don’t want to talk to me (they just want their missing bread), has illuminated this for me: my sick days tend to fall on the days my two allies are also ‘sick’, or free.


What does this mean for online marketing and business? If consumers are driven to belong, how can we make them? And, as businesses, how do we belong in the online and offline sphere? How do we find our place? What is the marketing version of the culmination of Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens singing ‘We’re All In This Together’? It’s simple: create a community.

The online medium has allowed us to redefine centrality. When you are presenting yourself online, more than ever, the power remains in the hands of your audience, the people you are trying to reach. This shouldn’t be intimidating – it’s exciting.

This idea of belonging is fundamental to the way we have always advertised and marketed, the ‘everyone’s doing it’ model of old advertising on TV (before our Instagram feed told us what everyone is actually doing) has evolved into ‘everyone WILL be doing it.’ Even as ourselves, we are representing brands, a walking billboard – Hi, I’m Blah Blah, I go for this football team and this is my favourite show. I study Blah at university, and live in Blah Blah. My favourite drink is Blah and I can often be found sipping it at Blah Blah Blah.

We define ourselves, and how we belong, without even thinking about it. It’s often outlined in our Instagram bios. Be something someone says about themselves: their favourite clothing brand that they can tag in their Instagram flat lay, their favourite coffee place, the cool band they saw on the weekend. We want to belong, that’s the easy part. But as a brand you just have to be something people want to belong to.


Because after all, we go together like dshfogfhweiaselgdwyl

Written by Sophie-Eugenie Dessertaine-Williams