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The Thrill of Affiliation

As social beings, humans are drawn to each other like magnets to metal. We work together, play together, live together, and often make lifetime commitments to grow old together. This social motivation begins with the need for affiliation, defined as a desire to establish social contact with others. Indi- viduals differ in the strength of their need for affiliation. Everyone is highly moti- vated to establish and maintain an optimum balance of social contact—sometimes craving the company of others, sometimes wanting to be alone—the way a body is set to maintain a certain temperature level. In an interesting experiment, Bibb Latané and Carol Werner found that even laboratory rats were more likely to approach others of their species after a period of isolation and were less likely to approach others after prolonged contact. These researchers suggested that rats, like many other animals, have a built-in “sociostat” (social thermostat) to regu- late their affiliative tendencies.

Is there evidence of a similar mechanism in humans? Shawn O’Connor and Lorne Rosenblood recruited college students to carry portable beepers for 4 days. Whenever the beepers went off (on average, every hour), the students wrote down whether at the time they were actually alone or in the company of other peo- ple and whether they wanted to be alone or with others. The results showed that students were in the state they desired two-thirds of the time. In fact, the situation they desired on one occasion (saying they wanted to be alone at 4 p.m.) predicted their actual situation the next time they were signaled (they would be alone at 5 p.m.). Whether it was solitude or social contact that the students sought, they successfully managed to regulate their own personal needs for affiliation.

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