Understanding and Overcoming Belonging Uncertainty

We can all become vulnerable to doubts about our belonging at any given moment, depending on the situations we find ourselves in and how we interpret them. Greg Walton and I coined the term “belonging uncertainty” to refer to the state of mind in which one suffers from doubts about whether one is fully accepted in a particular environment or ever could be.

We can experience it in the workplace, at school, at a snooty restaurant, or even in a brief social encounter. Belonging uncertainty has adverse effects. When we perceive threats to our sense of belonging, our horizon of possibility shrinks. We tend to interpret ourselves, other people, and the situation in a defensive and self-​protective way. We more readily infer that we are incapable or that we aren’t meant to be there, that we will not understand or be understood. We’re less inclined to accept challenges that pose a risk of failure.

Greg Walton and I crafted an intervention to address people’s feelings about whether they belong when they enter a situation that, though threatening, offers opportunity for growth. The intervention produces such good results that it is used in many colleges, middle schools, and high schools throughout the country, as well as in graduate school and workplaces.

When we perceive threats to our sense of belonging, our horizon of possibility shrinks.

We wanted to see if we could help combat the effects of belonging uncertainty by helping students of color to see the everyday slights and adversities that almost all of us experience in a different light. The problem of discrimination, we knew, must be combated head-​on, vigorously, by the government, the school system, and in each of our homes. But by helping students shore up their sense of belonging, despite the threats to it, we thought we could help them make their way through the treacherous terrain with more confidence.

To get a feel for what campus life was like for first-​year college students, we asked a wide range of individuals from all sorts of backgrounds to keep daily diaries for a week in which they entered the major experiences of their day, many of which might threaten their sense of belonging. At the end of each day, students were sent an email that asked them to record a number from 1 to 10 indicating how bad their day was. They also filled out a short survey about the extent to which they felt they fit in and belonged on campus.

We analyzed the entries and discovered a pattern. While there was no difference in the number of dispiriting incidents reported overall by different ethnic groups, these incidents seemed to have a more damaging effect on Black students, undermining their sense of belonging. Their sense of belonging would bounce back when they had a good day, but it would fall again with the next bad one. It was as if Black students’ belonging were continually on trial, making their campus experience feel more perilous and exhausting. For white students, there was no correlation between daily adversity and their feelings of belonging.

Walton and I decided to look for ways to help Black students not associate experiences of adversity with the notion that they didn’t belong. We drew on research showing that one powerful part of our situation is the stories we hear. Stories tell us what to expect, what’s “normal,” and what’s possible. They give us hope, especially when we are feeling down and isolated, afflicted with the feeling that we alone are in pain.

We recruited a group of college students who were near the end of their first and often stressful year on campus and asked the students to come to the psychology department for a one-​hour study about “attitudes and experiences” at their school. We told them we wanted their help in interpreting some results from a student survey and in creating materials to help future students prepare for the college experience. This affirmed them and put them in an empowered role.

In the first part of the study, we handed out a set of stories for them to read based on ones written by juniors and seniors at their school. Here’s one example:

Initially my transition here was pretty easy. Going out on Old Campus was easy and fun, and I met a lot of people early on. After Winter Break, things got harder because I realized that all my really good friends were at home and I didn’t have friends like that at school. However, I decided that instead of searching for friends, I should pursue my interests and let things fall into place. I got involved in extra-​curriculars, and I met people who had common interests and unique perspectives. I also got to know people in class as study partners who became close friends. I found a comfort zone by exploring my interests and taking the leap into an active life here. But this took time and before I found my niche there were times when I felt quite lonely. (Participant #77, white female)

Because these were college students, we thought that the lessons of the stories would be strengthened with scientific data. We shared the results of a survey we had conducted, which revealed that most juniors and seniors had wondered during their first year as college students whether they really belonged. Most had felt intimidated, like an impostor; many had wondered, at one time or another, whether their admission had been a mistake. Participants read these results as part of a survey summary. Here’s an example:

73 percent–86 percent of upperclassmen reported that, during their freshman year, they:

  • “sometimes” or “frequently” worried whether other students would accept them in the context of classes and coursework.
  • “sometimes” or “frequently” worried that other students at [school name] viewed their abilities negatively.
  • “sometimes” or “frequently” felt intimidated by professors.

Students who had these doubts could now see that such doubts were more common than not among those starting college. For the Black students, a particular benefit was seeing that white students also felt these doubts. We had found in our research that Black students tend to interpret their belonging uncertainty as stemming from being a minority on campus. The material showed them that doubting one’s belonging in college is a feeling shared by almost everyone, not just members of particular groups.

We also used statistics to reinforce another message that had been embedded in our stories: with time and effort, most students come to feel they belong. For instance,

82 percent–​97 percent of upperclassmen reported that, since their freshman year:

  • their comfort in the academic environment at [school name] has improved “some” or “a lot.”
  • they are “confident” or “certain” that most other students accept them in the context of classes and coursework.
  • they are “confident” or “certain” that other students at [school name] view their abilities positively.
  • they are “confident” or “certain” that professors at [school name] accept them.

All in all, participants got to see the hidden perspectives of a reference group: their fellow students. The stories and assurances didn’t come from professors or administrators, people outside their reference group. By learning these new perspectives, students might look at their adversities on campus a little differently, as a normal part of adjusting to college. Like encouragement we might get from a close friend at a time when we feel adrift, the message in our study sought to make people feel less like a ship lost at sea and more like co-travelers taking the first steps on a journey full of possibility. The stories turned uncertainty about belonging into a basis of connection rather than shame.

The message in our study sought to make people feel less like a ship lost at sea and more like co-travelers taking the first steps on a journey full of possibility.

Then, as a final part of the study, we asked them how the information they read echoed their own college life. We asked them to share the experiences they’d had over the course of their first year on campus. We told them that they could write an essay and, if they so chose, they could read it on video for future students to see. Almost all of them elected to do so. Walton and I included these participatory elements in the procedure in order to encourage students to make the insights from the study their own. Indeed, research shows that while receiving motivational advice about how to do better in school has little effect, giving advice works wonders; students get better grades when they give academic advice to another.

So that we could measure the impact of this intervention on the students, we had a control group of students read and respond to reflections by older students about how college students’ political views may change over time, with no comments related to belonging. Relative to this control group, our intervention increased the sense of belonging in college reported by the Black students, whereas it did not have an effect on white students’ reported sense of belonging. Our interpretation of these results was that for Black students, their belonging uncertainty stemmed, in large part, from their experience being a minority on campus and from contending with a racial stereotype that insinuated “People like me don’t belong here.” The intervention provided students with an alternative understanding of their belonging uncertainty: most people (not just Black people) feel it to some extent.

Compared with Black students in the control group, those who received our intervention were also more open to taking intellectual risk. After reviewing a catalog of courses at their school, accompanied with student comments, more of them expressed greater interest in taking demanding courses that would challenge them but also expand and enrich them, as opposed to “gut” courses that guaranteed a good grade but had otherwise little to offer.

But the big benefits of the intervention happened after it ended and participants integrated it into their lives. The participants continued to keep diaries of daily adversities, and when we analyzed these later entries, we found that Black students’ sense of belonging was less tethered to their day-​to-​day adversity. They still experienced the same dispiriting events but, it seems, saw them through a different lens.

The intervention also served as an on-​ramp to opportunity, driving still more lasting effects. More of the Black students in the intervention group began reaching out to advisers and professors for assistance with their schoolwork and more began to find mentors. They seemed to be psychologically more ready to embrace the opportunities in school. Research has shown that an enduring mentoring relationship with an adult on campus is one of the most powerful determinants of success in college and beyond. That may help explain why, three years later, we found, to our surprise, that Black students receiving our intervention earned higher final cumulative GPAs in college relative to their Black peers in the control group, halving the gap between their grades and those of their white peers.

The stories turned uncertainty about belonging into a basis of connection rather than shame.

What’s more, research led by Shannon Brady tracked these students for over a decade and found that many of the Black students in the intervention group kept in touch with their mentors long after they had graduated. In addition, while the students in the intervention group didn’t end up in more lucrative or prestigious careers—​perhaps because virtually all of our sample, coming from a select college, ended up with good careers—​they did report finding their careers more satisfying, less stressful, and more meaningful. And they were more involved in their communities and happier with their lives.

This intervention, which Walton and I named the “social-​belonging intervention,” does not boost students’ skills or grit; it assumes the students have those already. The intervention isn’t the cause of students’ success; it’s a catalyst for it.

When Walton and I published these results, they caused a stir, with some researchers doubting our findings. But under the lead of Walton and two other social psychologists, David Yeager and Shannon Brady, this intervention has since been administered to students at roughly 40 colleges and universities nationwide, with the results strongly replicated. These collective interventions have resulted in a 13-​percentage-​point increase in full-​time college enrollment among poor urban youth admitted to college and a 35 percent decrease in the achievement gap between students from disadvantaged and advantaged backgrounds.

The benefits cut across various sources of disadvantage, not just race but also social class. According to a 2020 report, overweight students, who can struggle with the stigma of obesity, also benefit, not only in terms of higher grades but, because of the link between stress and being overweight, a lower body mass index. Striking benefits have also been seen with women and ethnic minorities in college science courses when they share their stories with one another, closing achievement gaps in both course grades and persistence in the science track.

The intervention is not aimed at helping only people from disadvantaged and minority groups. It’s a general-​purpose intervention for anyone struggling with uncertainty about whether they belong.

Excerpted from Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides by Geoffrey L. Cohen. Copyright © 2022 by Geoffrey L. Cohen. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.