Belonging by Geoffrey L. Cohen

Geoffrey L. Cohen’s 2022 book, Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides, offers a social-psychological perspective on something that we all struggle with at times: feeling like we belong. What I enjoyed most about Cohen’s treatment of “belonging” is how pragmatic and broad-minded it is. Rather than spend precious pages explicating a concept that we all intuitively know when we experience it, Cohen’s approach is primarily solution-oriented, as he is most interested in offering ways to help people feel they belong within groups where they might otherwise not, so they can thrive even among people whom they view, or who view them, as “different.” He sees the difficulty of finding belonging in our modern world as a source of many societal ills, but he also provides a new conceptualization of belonging, framing it as having more to do with contexts than people.

Reading the book, I couldn’t help but think of the TV series Lost (2004-2010), in which people from various (even conflicting) countries, cultures, and walks of life were forced together after a plane crash on a mysterious desert island, with their past lives revealed to the viewer via flashbacks, as they reframed their identities in order to find their place within the new community they were forming in order to survive. The solutions Cohen offers are a bit like that, but more voluntary, less dramatic, and usually less extreme. He provides the results of numerous studies that employ what he calls “situation-crafting,” offering a variety of belonging-focused “wise interventions.” Based on the results of these studies, it would seem that putting people in situations that reveal to them meaningful ways they can contribute something positive is a most effective way to get people to feel they belong.

Overall, the book has more strengths than it does weaknesses. It is heavily researched, case-based, and well sourced. Cohen provides many examples of effective interventions into even the most difficult “belonging” scenarios, from middle school to warring villages. Interestingly, through the lens of belonging, he is also able to provide new and unique angles to consider relatively recent controversial events, such as the Yale Halloween costume controversy and a road rage shooting incident in Florida, to help demonstrate his points. When both sides in these conflicts are framed as struggles with community and belonging, Cohen is able to present the perspectives of the individuals involved without needing to conclude who was “in the right.”

Cohen frequently acknowledges a wide range of views that people across the political spectrum can relate to. For instance, while he details the ways in which issues like stereotype threat and fundamental attribution error are particularly potent for minorities and marginalized people in society, he also reiterates that these things can and do affect all of us, regardless of our identity markers, and are context-dependent (e.g. he uses Eminem’s struggles when breaking onto the rap scene as one example). He also provides a nuanced perspective on “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)” training, noting that those focused on lecturing and shaming people have been largely ineffective. Instead, he argues that people-focused solutions, such as asking individuals what they think and really listening to their answers (which he calls “perspective-getting”), having them explore how their own values are uniquely reflected in their work, and allowing them to meaningfully contribute to solving problems, are far more effective.

However, the book is not without its flaws, most notably in the few instances where what is perhaps an ideological bias on Cohen’s part peeks through in ways that seemingly contradict his own guiding principles. For instance, although most of the concepts he relies on throughout the text are derived from well-constructed psychological research studies, at one point he cites Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. As has been argued by John McWhorter, this is a highly problematic text full of contradictions, conflicting directives, condescensions, and assertions that are “bizarrely disconnected from reality.” But more germanely, DiAngelo’s primary goal in her work is to argue for (and evince) the very shaming and “discomforting” kind of DEI training that Cohen argues against multiple times throughout the book, due to its counterproductive effect on belonging.

A similarly self-contradictory error can be found in Cohen’s treatment of the James Damore Google memo as an example of fundamental attribution error (FAE). This was the only time I recall Cohen taking a clear stance on a controversial incident, and I think he misconstrued things. He argued against Damore’s “zeroing in on a small subset of research findings” that showed reasons other than discrimination for the lack of gender diversity in the tech sector, going so far as to accuse him of “express[ing] and act[ing] on harmful views.” But this framing of the memo, which was written with the express purpose of highlighting that there may be other “possible” causes which were not allowed to be spoken out loud at the company, sorely missed the point. Damore was primarily trying to rectify a problem within the culture of Google that was preventing free discussion and the expression of certain ideas, which Cohen acknowledges is a major threat to belonging elsewhere in the book. He even later cites a study produced by Google touting the importance of “psychological safety,” which is “when colleagues… feel able, even obligated, to be candid” (p. 255), to the effectiveness of its teams. Yet Cohen fails to mention the fact that Damore was fired over his memo attempting to do just that, just one year after the study’s publication. Though both Google and Cohen seem to believe in the power of psychological safety for belonging, they did not seem to understand that revealing its lack of presence at Google was one of Damore’s main goals.

Despite some self-defeating bias of Cohen’s being detectable within the text, it is rare enough that it is relatively easy to ignore, especially considering the care he clearly takes throughout to provide examples and insights that are universally applicable. In sum, there were flaws, but none that were fatal to the book’s overall purpose and usefulness to those who wish to promote a culture of belonging in their own communities, groups, and organizations. The many and varied real, practical solutions and practices that are demonstrated to work and offered throughout make this a book full of substance, more than worth the price of admission in my view. Highly recommend.