How to Harness the Power of Belonging

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Wharton’s Katy Milkman talks with Jay Van Bavel, co-author of the book ‘The Power of Us,’ as part of the Authors@BCFG series.

The Behavior Change For Good Initiative (BCFG) at Penn has launched a new virtual interview series titled Authors@BCFG. Hosted by Wharton professors Katy Milkman and Angela Duckworth, who are BCFG’s co-directors, the series aims to showcase scholars who have written books about behavioral science for a general audience.

In this premiere episode, Milkman interviews Jay Van Bavel, associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. Van Bavel and Dominic Packer, a psychology professor at Lehigh University, have written a new book titled, The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony. It examines how group affiliations influence behavior and inspire both personal and social change.

During the interview, Van Bavel talks about why he and Packer wrote The Power of Us, how shared identity can help us become better people, and what social science can teach us about tackling the challenges we face as an increasingly polarized society, among other topics.

You can listen to a podcast of the conversation above, or watch a video of the interview below on this page. An edited transcript follows.

Katy Milkman: Why did you write this book?

Jay Van Bavel: I never had aspirations to write a book. The real reason is that I stumbled into this conversation with Dominic once. We were friends from graduate school and did our postdocs together. We moved and became professors at the same time and parents at the same time. I was visiting him, and he was talking about a book club he was part of and some book they had read. It was a social science book. He said it was really good, but it didn’t really flow together very well. I started defending the author. I said, “At least they wrote a book. It’s so hard to do and very impressive.”

He said, “You could write a book.” I was kind of startled and said, “What would I write a book about?” And he said, “About your research about identity in groups.” That got me thinking about it on my ride home. I started thinking about what all the chapters would be, and I emailed him when I got home and said, “Let’s do this.”

Since that time five or six years ago, it feels like identity has become such a major issue around so many topics in society — around politics and race and nationality. Our goal is to try to help people understand how groups are operating. It feels like there’s a huge desire to understand how they operate in the real world, but also at work, and to give people the tools to make smarter groups and more inclusive groups. That’s fundamentally the mission we had behind our book.

Milkman: I would love it if you would tell everyone the hilarious story of how you and your co-author became fast friends, and what you think that story teaches us about identity.

Van Bavel: Dominic had started his PhD a year prior to me at the University of Toronto. When I came to the university, I had to pick an office. He was in this really nice office, so I immediately grabbed one of the desks and started moving in. The very next day, I brought my hockey equipment. I had a huge bag of goalie equipment, and I brought it in and said, “I hope you don’t mind. I’m just going to store this here. I have such a tiny apartment, there’s no room for it.”

“People can forge bonds over all kinds of experiences.”

He looked at me with complete disdain, but he didn’t say anything. He’s polite, with a traditional English upbringing, but it turns out that he really despised me. For about six months, I don’t think he turned around in his chair to talk to me. A few months after that, we were having a wine and cheese colloquium after this guest speaker had come to the university, and we were talking about ideas with some other students. I was a poor graduate student, so I was eating as much of the hors d’oeuvres as I could, and I think I had a free glass of beer. I felt like this was a very high quality of life for me to get all this free stuff.

I was talking and drinking and eating, and it wasn’t a good combination. I had a few cheese cubes, and one got stuck in my throat. I knew I was choking. Your instinct is to go somewhere private because it’s pretty humiliating and you don’t want to be publicly embarrassed. But the one thing you learn about choking is to never leave the room because that’s how you’ll die. It turns out there is almost always somebody in a room who can save your life with the Heimlich, but our social instincts are to avoid humiliation.

So, I stayed in the room. I kind of stumbled behind the bar. The bartender tried to help me, but it didn’t fully work. I grabbed Dominic’s hands to help me, and I couldn’t even really talk at that point because all the oxygen was cut off to my brain. I pulled him to the men’s room across the hall from the reception, and he was kind of horrified. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t realize I was choking at first. But I turned him around and put his hands on my stomach and started pushing, and eventually he realized what to do. And the cheese came out.

He saved me. I remember after he saved me, I laughed. I thought this was the most hilarious thing. My career almost ended by choking to death at a wine and cheese reception. And Dominic was horrified. He looked like he had seen a ghost. He wanted to go home. He was upset.

I was like, “No, let’s go back in. There’s still food to be had.” And it turns out that was the moment where our relationship changed. We had this weird bond with each other. From that point forward, when I’d be in the office and I’d share an idea with our other officemate, Dominic would slowly start turning around, engaging, and before long we realized we had a lot of [mutual] interests. For 18 years, we’ve moved to the same places, became great friends, and now wrote a book together.

People can forge bonds over all kinds of experiences. In some tribal communities, this is what they do. They actively have people go through these really stressful, intense rituals to become full-fledged members of the community. We kind of accidentally did this, but it was one of those things that bonded us together.

Milkman: You talk in the book about how identity can help us become better people and how it can lead us to turn against one another. Can we start on the positive by talking about when identity can be helpful and why?

Van Bavel: Groups get a very bad rap. Part of our DNA is that we evolved in small groups. Humans aren’t particularly strong or fast. We’re not poisonous. We can’t fly. Our evolutionary advantage is that we can cooperate, unlike almost any other species on Earth, and communicate with each other. We can build amazing innovations, out-compete other species, and this has allowed us to spread around the world. Our main fear is getting socially ostracized because our ancestors who did that died. They didn’t live a very long life.

Our instinct is fundamentally to connect with other people. A lot of us have become acutely aware of this during the pandemic, as we’ve all been forced to stay home. We have this instinct for pro-sociality and connection, and it’s unlike anything our ancestors would have experienced. We’re using the internet, computers, our ability to do all the things that we do in our daily life. This was something that was completely unknown to humans up until a couple of hundred years ago.

There’s lots of research showing that groups can do all kinds of good things. It can not only allow us to innovate, create, and solve complex problems, but it also turns out it’s really good for our physical and mental health. People who are part of communities have all these better indices on all kinds of measures of their health. This is what’s often referred to as social care.

Milkman: Identity groups can turn us against each other and become harmful, and that’s particularly salient in this moment of polarization. Talk about what science suggests we can do to combat that and prevent groups from creating harmful rifts.

“When you identify with groups, it’s the norms of the groups that really seem to drive behavior.”

Van Bavel: I think that’s how most of us think about groups now. You see this term in the media a lot: “tribalism.” One of the things we want to do is challenge that idea in our book, because certainly, that’s a potential for humans. We have a long history of inter-group conflict. You can look at every culture on Earth and see evidence of “groupishness” and group conflict that can be really dangerous.

What we try to communicate is that doesn’t need to be the case. The more you identify with the group doesn’t necessarily make you discriminatory or exclusionary or conformist in a way that leads to things like groupthink. It can do all those things, but what we talk about is the critical role of the norms of the group you identify with. I’ll give you three examples here on how that’s powerful.

The first one, just to prime people’s intuitions about this power, is that America is known for the pursuit of individual goals. A lot about individual freedom is part of the rhetoric, and many of us identify that way. Research finds that’s actually a form of conformity in itself, so the more you identify as American, the more you see yourself as an individualist. If you’re an immigrant to the country, the more you acculturate and become identified with America, the more likely you are to embrace that value of individualism. You can also use it to become more inclusive and embrace difference. It turns out there is great research showing that if you join a group where the norms are embracing difference or valuing diversity, the more you identify with that group, the more you become inclusive, and the less you discriminate.

If you join a group like Doctors Without Borders, and you start to buy into the norms and value system, the more you’re willing to put your own life at risk and incur costs to go to other countries to help people who are incredibly different from you. The Red Cross is another example.

One thing that I want to drive home as a key part of our book is that leaders have a key role in creating those norms, and so do individuals. Because even if leaders have a vision statement on their website about what their company or their group stands for, people often look to those around them to determine what the norms are. And if they’re in contrast with the vision statement or explicit values of the corporation, people will follow those social norms around them.

This is where we exert a lot of power, whether we’re a leader through our rhetoric and our example, or rewarding people who do these things that we actually say we value. Or whether we look to our peers who have an office next to ours and see what they’re doing. Those norms can guide us in really good ways or bad ways. That’s why we think that identity is part of it, but you have to fully understand how identity operates. When you identify with groups, it’s the norms of the groups that really seem to drive behavior.

Milkman:  I’m going to turn to some of the questions that are coming in. [Audience member] Marissa Barbara wants advice on how to build group identity in a diverse group, and how we can build identity when there are polarized subgroups.

Van Bavel: Most of us are now aware that diverse groups often can out-perform other groups because they have different perspectives, and it avoids things like groupthink and blind spots. Those things are really critical. One of my favorite studies on this, however, found that that’s only true of diverse groups who felt a shared sense of purpose or identity. If we’ve been in a diverse group, and those people don’t get along and don’t feel like they’re working for something together at a higher purpose, they don’t perform better. That’s why if you don’t have the inclusion piece, you don’t really harness the benefits of diversity.

It’s also important not to quash or suppress the lower-order identities that people have when they come to work. For example, research on prejudice reduction strategies finds that those are most effective if people feel a common sense of identity at a higher level but also feel like they can express their personal or minority identities. If not, what you often have is a majority group that is imposing its identity on minority group members. You have to be careful not to do that if you’re creating a super high-order identity, or you won’t get buy-in. And obviously, you’ll lose people. They won’t stick around in that type of environment if they don’t feel like they’re valued.

There was a study at Google where they looked at what made the most effective teams. They looked at over 200 teams… The one thing they found that predicted team success, that made teams greater than the sum of their parts, was psychological safety. A lot of people don’t understand what that term means, but that term means that you get to share a perspective that might be different, challenge the status quo, constructively criticize a friend or a colleague, and you’re invited back to the group the next day. In other words, you’re intrinsically valued. You’re not walking on eggshells. You’re not biting your tongue. Those are groups where performance excels, and they perform greater than the sum of their parts. That’s another piece of diversity, creating that sense of safety so that everybody feels like they have a voice.

“That’s another piece of diversity, creating that sense of safety so that everybody feels like they have a voice.”

Milkman: Do you have any advice for how people can switch from one role to the next, or how leaders can manage it when their employees or the people who are coaching or mentoring have multiple identities that come into conflict?

Van Bavel: I would say this is one of the core themes of our book, which is that we borrowed a quote from the poet Walt Whitman that we “contain multitudes.” All of us have multiple identities. Those identities are often in conflict… I had this story of how I got stuck bringing my kids home from school during the pandemic. We were coming up in the elevator. I was racing to teach my class from my kitchen table, and the elevator got stuck. We were trapped in the elevator, and it was the class before the midterms, and I knew my poor students would be stressed and anxious about it. I called in and taught the class from my cell phone. And my poor kids were stuck there watching me while we’re trapped in an elevator, waiting for the repair person to come. You’re trying to keep these identities separate and sometimes, through circumstances that we can’t control, they come into conflict.

A challenge often with minority individuals is code-switching. They feel like they have to live up to norms that don’t match their ethnic or religious identity at work, and it’s really stressful and challenging. I think one of the things to just understand from the get-go is signaling to people that you support these different identities. It’s really important when leaders signal it.

Milkman: I’m going to steal back the mic and ask you my last burning question. I’m very curious about what unanswered questions you found yourself wishing you could answer. After looking at all of the literature and synthesizing it for your book, what does it make you want to know?

Van Bavel: One thing that I want to do in the next five or 10 years of my research is something that the Behavior Change for Good Initiative stands for, something that’s embodied in your work. One of the things that resonated when I was reading your book is applying these ideas at scale with real behavior. A lot of the studies in psychology are based on people’s attitudes in self-reports, and that’s off to a really good first pass, but it’s much more powerful when you can look at behavior and do it at scale.

In the last five years, I’ve been moving more and more to real behavior, especially measuring mass behavior online or in multiple countries. But I think the next wave is putting these ideas to test in ways that can affect people and create behavior change for good, but in a measurable way. How much can we reduce toxic behavior in the workplace? How much can we change the norms to promote healthy dissent so we can avoid groupthink in some kind of measurable way?

I feel like the behavioral economics field, the behavioral science field has been moving in that direction the last five years, and I am inspired by it, by these huge studies with real behavior. I just think that’s the future of the best science. I think that the stuff on groups needs to be taken there and put to the test and see where it’s going to make a positive change, and maybe where it won’t.

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