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Psychology of Social Connection

Entries from April 2021

Teamwork makes the dream work — because we can’t all be Michael Phelps

April 7th, 2021 · 10 Comments


The Beatles, the Boston Red Sox, the Avengers. Everywhere we look people join together with others who share the same goals, passions, or superhero-like abilities which make them part of a distinct group. This semester, we’ve spent each class dissecting our need to belong, and our group associations constitute a huge component of fulfilling that need. Lara, Ari, and I each belong to sports teams here on campus which have provided unique group environments throughout our time here. We are excited to share the experiences we’ve had on the dance, soccer, and rugby teams as we examine some of the benefits and drawbacks of group membership. 


Coming to college, I knew very little other than the fact that I was going to be completely out of my element and that I was going to go crazy if I didn’t find a way to continue dancing. As a lifelong ballerina but yearning to try out something new, I adventured to an Expressions hip-hop workshop during opening days (that performance was laughable, a ballerina doing hip-hop?) and was approached by two of my now teammates who encouraged me to come to Crimson Dance Team (CDT!!!) auditions the next day. Apparently, they were impressed by my ability to count to eight and sassy walk with the best of ‘em (or at least that’s what they told me after I made the team).


The first thing that struck me about CDT was how different everyone was, putting aside our identifications as dancers and Harvard students. We come from a variety of dance backgrounds (some competitive, some ballet and jazz, some hip-hop, etc.) and, in my years on the team, we’ve had members from more than ten states and four countries with countless other identities and life experiences. The ability to bring different people together can be very beneficial for groups by increasing the number of perspectives and amount of knowledge contributed to achieving a goal (Cheng, Sanchez-Burks, & Lee, 2008). On CDT, that can mean offering different approaches to cleaning a dance (working on each individual component of a move so everyone is in perfect unison) or suggesting team building strategies; the more people we have making unique contributions, the more competitive we can be as a group. Groups are also just a great way to meet people who come from all walks of life in order to expose yourself to these different perspectives.


Aside from bringing different people together, teams (and other groups) have many other benefits. We know that group membership increases our overall sense of belonging (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), but this is especially salient following rejection in other social environments. When people experience rejection, they gravitate towards and find more meaning in their pre-established groups in order to fix their dampened sense of belonging (Knowles & Gardner, 2008). Being a part of the dance team has definitely benefited me when it comes to finding my place at Harvard and having people to turn to when things are a bit rough. Team membership generally can have many positive attributes when it comes to social connection, however there are also some potential drawbacks which must be examined in order to get a complete picture of what it means to belong to this type of group.



“One last rep, go Gibby!!” In between the beating of my heart in my ears, I hear my teammates yelling my nickname as I turn for the last conditioning sprint of the workout. Fighting through the pain and lactic acid filling my thighs with concrete, it’s their loud encouragement that gets me through that last repetition. My team informs a large part of my identity, at Harvard and beyond; being a student-athlete fills me with pride, responsibility, and an inherent belonging to the entire athletic community. Group membership to the soccer team provides me with the opportunity to grow and meet goals together, creating an interdependency. I enjoy this unique dynamic, as we need and rely on every single player to be on board (not literally!) with the team goals in order to win games, championships, and improve both personally and collectively.


The knowledge that I’m ‘stuck with’ my 20+ teammates for at least four years somewhat forces acceptance and approval of everyone, however, this also spawns an imbalance between assimilating with the team’s dominant identities in contrast to maintaining individuality. The optimal distinctiveness model describes this dichotomy as opposing needs for assimilation and differentiation, in which we define ourselves using distinctive category memberships (Brewer, 1991). Social identities are strongest in those categorizations that are not too inclusive where they become constraining, while also narrow enough to create a sense of belonging. When groups maintain this balance, we are more likely to identify with them and adopt their principles (Brewer, 1991). Personally, I experienced this conflict in assimilating to the heteronormative environment on my team for my first two years and instinctively ignoring my sexual orientation and exploration. Naturally, I assumed that I was straight, both because of existing team norms and conformity out of fear of rejection or ostracism. The thought of coming out to my team became a very anxiety-inducing experience; I played out drastic events of losing my place in this group and having to quit, even though deep down I anticipated that they would accept me regardless.


Coming out, I did not expect positive reactions from my teammates, as I had concealed this stigmatized identity from them for two years of our interactions. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have been shown to be perceived more negatively when they were associated with people’s ingroups (Lupo & Zárate, 2019). Similarly, early disclosure of homosexuality to a heterosexual study partner, versus later coming out, was predictive of increased liking, closeness, and interest ratings in spending one-on-one time in another study (Dane et al., 2015). Contrary to my knowledge of how people can react, and the imminent threat of losing one of my social identities, I stepped out of my comfort zone and overcame my initial flight reaction to leave the closet. To my surprise, the outcome emulated those results showing that participants reacted more positively for established in-group members (Buliga & MacInnis, 2020). In fact, the pre-existing friendships on my team felt like a buffer to the potentially stigmatized perception they may have had of my ‘non-straight-ness’. Learning about an established friend’s membership to an out-group, in this case sexuality, can be overruled by preceding relationship satisfaction and investment into the friendship through long-term commitment (Rusbult et al., 2012).


So maybe my initial fear and stress reaction were part of an innate fear activation reaction involving the HPA axis, amygdala, and sympathetic nervous system? Maybe my stress of rejection was perspective-taking of my team’s perception that turned disadvantageous to my personal well-being? A theme we have found in this course is that the intense physiological aspect of empathy can be counterproductive in that it produced undue stress, anxiety, and fear in me. We may need to self-regulate this vicarious aspect of empathy to maintain our relationships, and our individuality. Tuning into empathy to connect with my teammates is advantageous to create belonging and powerful group identities, however, it can also lead us to hide, or even lose, a part of ourselves.



Moving to a new place gives people the opportunity to curate the different parts of themselves due to decreased interactions with some of the groups they may have previously strongly identified with. As I prepare for graduation and moving to a new place, one of my main concerns is finding a group of friends. Coming into college, I was *briefly* in a similar situation as I knew of one other person who was going to Harvard but Opening Days, roommates, the mere presence of Berg, and joining the rugby team facilitated meeting new people. What I didn’t expect was exactly how close I would get to some of my teammates. As we learned in class, people in our in-groups are more likely to become and stay friends and sports provided me that space. 


According to Graupensperger et al. (2020), small groups, like college club sports, lead to increased group identification which in turn, often leads to group members behaving to fit in and greater team cohesion. As Lara described, this can have a wide range of implications, some stressful, some encouraging. In a study investigating group membership and running, a relatively solitary activity,  Evans et al. (2019) found women often report a greater running identity compared to men when linked with a running group. The results suggest those who consider running a part of their identity generally run greater distances on average. This supports my own experiences at the collegiate level with one example being conditioning. Conditioning sessions on my own are not as appealing and I will often try to rope people into conditioning with me because it’s an easy reminder of my membership to a team greater than myself. 


Group membership is also based on social identity. The connection between group membership and social identity is moderated by the amount of prosocial or antisocial behavior between members during a given day (Bruner & Benson, 2018). In my own personal experience, team vibes are indicative of whether we’ll have a “good” or “bad” practice; for that reason we make a concerted effort to change our behavior when it seems like we are getting down on ourselves or chippy with teammates. Realizing this relies heavily on the experienced players who know the team to steer the rest of the team in a more constructive direction. This is only possible when teammates know the verbal and physical signs of someone being off track. The more time teams spend together, the closer they tend to get and research suggests this increases an individual’s commitment to the team (Graupensperger et al., 2020). The beginning of the season is challenging as everyone adjusts to new roles, new teammates, and figuring out social connections. As a freshman, I was one of eight walk-ons (only two remained by senior year) and it took some time to settle in and figure who was actually going to become a part of the team. And after winning a national championship in the fall of 2019, I’d say we found our groove. 


Rugby is and will continue to be a huge part of my life after college, but instead of being an active member of the team, I will be a part of the Harvard-Radcliffe Rugby alumni group. Sports have been a cornerstone of my life and despite leaving behind the organized, rigorous collegiate sports atmosphere, I’m already looking for teams in my soon-to-be home. After all, the common interest sports provide me makes it easier to meet new people while providing an easy conversation starter that could be the start of meaningful new friendships and group connections.



Abramson, L., Uzefovsky, F., Toccaceli, V., & Knafo-Noam, A. (2020). The genetic and environmental origins of emotional and cognitive empathy: Review and meta-analyses of twin studies. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 114, 113-133. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.03.023

Baumeister, Roy F, & Leary, Mark R. (1995). The Need to Belong. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

Brewer, M. B. (1991). The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 17(5), 475-482.

Bruner, Mark W, & Benson, Alex J. (2018). Evaluating the psychometric properties of the Social Identity Questionnaire for Sport (SIQS). Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 35, 181-188.

Buliga, E., & MacInnis, C. (2020). “How do you like them now?” Expected reactions upon discovering that a friend is a political out-group member. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(10-11), 2779-2801.

Cheng, Chi-Ying, Sanchez-Burks, Jeffrey, & Lee, Fiona. (2008). Taking advantage of differences: Increasing team innovation through identity integration. In Diversity and Groups (Vol. 11, pp. 55-73). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Dane, S. K., Masser, B. M., MacDonald, G., & Duck, J. M. (2015). When “in your face” is not out of place: The effect of timing of disclosure of a same-sex dating partner under conditions of contact. PLoS ONE, 10(8), e0135023.

Evans, M. Blair, McLaren, Colin, Budziszewski, Ross, & Gilchrist, Jenna. (2019). When a sense of “we” shapes the sense of “me”: Exploring how groups impact running identity and behavior. Self and Identity, 18(3), 227-246.

Graupensperger, Scott, Panza, Michael, & Evans, M. Blair. (2020). Network Centrality, Group Density, and Strength of Social Identification in College Club Sport Teams. Group Dynamics, 24(2), 59-73.

Knowles, Megan L, & Gardner, Wendi L. (2008). Benefits of Membership: The Activation and Amplification of Group Identities in Response to Social Rejection. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(9), 1200-1213.

Lupo, A. K., & Zárate, M. A. (2019). When “they” become “us”: The effect of time and ingroup identity on perceptions of gay and lesbian group members. Journal of homosexuality, 66(6), 780-796.

Rusbult, C. E., Agnew, C. R., & Arriaga, X. B. (2012). The investment model of commitment processes. In Handbook of theories of social psychology (pp. 218–231). Sage.


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Perspective-Taking in Romantic Relationships

April 1st, 2021 · 5 Comments


My quarantine has been spent watching a lot of reality TV. Specifically, romantic shows such as Love is Blind, Married at First Sight, and the Bachelor. There are so many different iterations of shows asking you to watch two people fall in love and stick around to see if their relationship lasts. Clearly there is something intriguing about watching a romantic relationship develop and seeing the drama play out. While watching, we get to see the heartbreak but also the blossoming of new love. A staple of these shows is the interviews where each person shares their thoughts on the state of the relationship. Often, these thoughts involve trying to figure out whether their love interest likes them back and in general trying to understand the others’ perspective. 

This makes sense because perspective-taking is a critical part of any relationship. Perspective-taking involves stepping into the mind of another person to understand what they are thinking and feeling. In romantic relationships, perspective-taking occurs all throughout the course of the relationship. From the beginning, both parties are trying to identify whether their interest in the other is reciprocated. Rejection hurts and can be extremely uncomfortable. Even though we might try hard to figure out what someone else is thinking, it is really difficult for us to accurately identify their thoughts and feelings especially in regards to romantic relationships. Bohns & DeVincent (2019) found that those who initiate romantic relationships underestimate how difficult it is for the other person to reject their advances. While I was watching the Bachelor, I could palpably feel this discomfort every time Matt James sent girls home. The girls were also very disappointed and upset and I imagine they would have trouble empathizing with Matt’s position.

Perspective-taking is important throughout the relationship as well. Understanding your partner’s perspective is crucial for the well-being of romantic relationships (Ramezani et al. 2020). The reality TV shows take advantage of this fact by inserting uncertainty into the plots of the show. For example, in Love is Blind, the couples are engaged throughout the show and must decide at the altar whether to say I do. This creates a tension between the couples as they try to figure out what their partner is going to say when they get to the wedding. Similarly, in Married at First Sight, the couples are married and must decide at the end of the show whether to stay married or get divorced. Oftentimes you can tell who will reject their partner and who will feel blindsided by the rejection. It can still be heartbreaking to watch as someone realizes that their view of the relationship was very different from their partner’s view of the relationship. Luckily perspective-taking and empathy can be improved through Theory of Mind training as evidenced in the Ramezani et al. (2020) paper. Theory of Mind training involves teaching couples how to identify mental states so that they can learn to understand the mental states of their partners (Ramezani et al. 2020). While this would be the healthiest for these relationships, I don’t think it would not be as entertaining for the audience.



As mentioned above, romantic relationships do require high demand for perspective-taking and empathy abilities, becoming even harder when it comes to the affective forecasting part. Namely, when we have a crush on someone, whether we can accurately predict if they have similar feelings to us; or whether we can wisely step out when the others show no interest in us through their implicit cues, is very important but troublesome to us. 

We may sometimes wonder why we keep regretfully missing someone we care about in the crowds without forming a stronger bond with him/her. In the series Sex Education, which narrates a teenage boy Otis with a sex therapist mother teams up with his high school classmate Maeve to set up an underground sex therapy clinic at school, Maeve and Otis soon realize that they share far more in common than they had originally thought and secretly develop romantic feelings for one another. However, neither of them acts on their impulses out of fear that the other does not feel the same way, and they end up passing by each other while forming romantic relationships with others (watch here ). 

Whenever you encounter this kind of situation, do not overly blame yourself and regard it as common. We do desire one day we can have some magic power to predict the significant others’ feelings, which we cannot possibly get. However, there are still some ways to improve our forecasting accuracy to some extent.


Part 1: Causes

To begin with, I want to mention some of the nature behind the affective forecasting process towards the one we like. When we experience the feelings of desperately desiring someone, admittedly it is partially attributed to their physical attractiveness, personality and probably similarity and complementarity. Nevertheless, have you ever thought about the uncertainty itself of whether they like us can increase romantic attraction, which can be exemplified by an experiment, of which the female participants in the uncertain condition were most attracted to the men – even more attracted than were participants who were told that the men liked them a lot(Erin R. Whitchurch, 2011). After that, the attraction along with our perceived rarity, acting as an incentive, will influence our affective forecasting and then our motivation. 

Honestly, it interests me firstly regarding why people sometimes flinch, facing the attraction, even though performing actively can significantly increase the possibility of success. It is reminiscent of people’s fear of being rejected, rejection sensitivity, as we’ve talked about in the class. Interestingly, to dig it deeper, I found the subjective expected pleasure theory. Especially when the unobtained outcome is more desirable, the anticipated pleasure about the obtained outcome declines because people anticipate disappointment when they imagine getting the worse outcome or anticipate regret when they imagine having made the wrong choice. Moreover, as for the forecasting process, the displeasure of getting the worst of two outcomes is typically greater in magnitude than the pleasure of receiving the better outcome(Barbara A. Mellers 2001). In other words, people tend to imagine possible bad outcomes more negatively than they originally are. Along with this, the anticipated pleasure will determine our next steps of decision-making(Barbara A. Mellers 2001). 

The next question comes to what causes the misperception. The signal detection theory (SDT) describes this as the sensitivity of distinguishing sexual intent cues from friendly cues (Figure 1). Specifically, the insensitive one can perceive more overlaps between the friendly cues and sexually interested cues. It should be highlighted that these sensitivity variances are not only due to inheritable or gender differences, but also due to stimulus such as clothing style, dating variables, alcohol, attractiveness(Farris et al., 2008) etc.. According to this theory, misperception may arise from people’s different signal detection sensitivity. For instance, the insensitive one (panel a) cannot distinguish the large parts of the overlap, when dating a sensitive one (panel b). Additionally, decision criteria can also affect the outcomes (Figure 2). For instance, the liberal one (point a) may mistake some friendly cues as sexual intent cues, while the conservative one (point b) may neglect some sexual intent cues as friendly cues. This can explain why males perceive both males and females as having more sexual interest than do females – their perception thresholds are different. Evolutionary theorists have suggested that men’s reproductive goals are better achieved by over-perceiving (lower threshold) rather than underperceiving women’s level of sexual interest(Parkhill, 2015). Overall, the bias will result in the misperception and I hypothesize that the misperception outcomes will in turn influence the sensitivity due to the close relationship between rejection and self-evaluation. 


Figure 1. Normal probability distributions representing perception of friendliness and sexual interest. Panel a depicts the perceptual distributions of an individual who is relatively insensitive to the difference between friendliness and sexual interest. Panel b depicts the perceptual distributions of a more sensitive individual(Farris et al., 2008). 


Figure 2. Normal probability distributions representing perception of friendliness and sexual interest. Decision criterion points are depicted to illustrate decisional bias. Point ‘A’ represents a liberal criterion; point ‘B’ represents a conservative criterion(Farris et al., 2008).


Part 2: Solutions

Even though it is pretty hard to maintain accurate affective forecasting, we still can figure out some possible solutions based on those findings. For instance, we should know clearly the uncertainty feelings can give us certain kinds of illusions, to avoid suffering from obsessive love disorder. 

Plus, we should consider the possible effects of SDT if we always step into misperception. To be more specific, we should deliberately know more about others’ perspectives, especially the significant other you are dating with. According to the research, even though people can more accurately predict their affective reactions to a future event when they know how a neighbor in their social network reacted to the event than when they know about the event itself or some predictions of the observers(Gilbert et al., 2009), they are still more prone to conjure an inaccurate vision based on the presence of event information(Knowing, 2009). Thus, the takeaway is that we should forecast based on the actual feelings of surrogates currently experiencing the event or neighbors/observers’ advice. 

On top of that, despite of the subjective expected pleasure theory, we still can mentally subtract positive events to improve our affective state, according to the evidence that Internet respondents and university staff members who wrote about how they might never have met their romantic partner were more satisfied with their relationship than were those who wrote about how they did meet their partner(Koo et al., 2008).

Finally, never overlook the beneficial consequences for mood by actively engaging in positive self-representation, even to strangers, because The failure to recognize the affective benefits of putting one’s best face forward may underlie forecasting errors regarding the emotional consequences of the most common forms of social interactions(Dunn et al., 2007).



Barbara A. Mellers , A. P. M. (2001). Anticipated Emotions as Guides to Choice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(6). 


Bohns, V. K., & DeVincent, L. A. (2019). Rejecting unwanted romantic advances is more difficult than suitors realize. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(8), 1102-1110.


Dunn, E. W., Biesanz, J. C., Human, L. J., & Finn, S. (2007, Jun). Misunderstanding the affective consequences of everyday social interactions: the hidden benefits of putting one’s best face forward. J Pers Soc Psychol, 92(6), 990-1005. 


Erin R. Whitchurch, T. D. W. a. D. T. G. (2011). ”He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not . . . ”: Uncertainty Can Increase Romantic Attraction. Psychological Science(22), 172. 


Farris, C., Treat, T. A., Viken, R. J., & McFall, R. M. (2008, Jan). Sexual coercion and the misperception of sexual intent. Clin Psychol Rev, 28(1), 48-66. 


Gilbert, D. T., Killingsworth, M. A., Eyre, R. N., & Wilson, T. D. (2009, Mar 20). The surprising power of neighborly advice. Science, 323(5921), 1617-1619. 


Knowing, M. I. v. Y. F. C. P. A. F. B. I. B. (2009). My Imagination vs. Your Feelings: Can Personal Affective Forecasts Be Improved By Knowing. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 15(4), 351-360. 


Koo, M., Algoe, S. B., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008, Nov). It’s a wonderful life: mentally subtracting positive events improves people’s affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. J Pers Soc Psychol, 95(5), 1217-1224. 


Parkhill, A. J. J.-T. A. A. M. R. (2015). Why Do Some Men Misperceive Women’s Sexual Intentions More Frequently Than Others Do? An Application of the Confluence Model. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 


Ramezani, A., Ghamari, M., Jafari, A., & Aghdam, G. F. (2020). The effectiveness of a Theory of Mind (ToM) training program in promoting empathy between married couples. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 19(1), 1-25.


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