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November 30, 2016

Being part of a group matters

An unintended, although not necessarily unpredicted, consequence of the loosening of family and community ties has been the rise of chronic loneliness and isolation. A killer every bit as deadly as smoking or obesity, the challenge of tackling loneliness is slowly rising up the public health agenda. Voluntary Health Scotland made it the theme of their annual conference earlier this month. Interesting piece of research from Dundee University about the health benefits of being part of a group. More important even than individual relationships. 


Kirsteen Paterson

FEELING part of a group is more important than individual relationships in protecting a person’s quality of life, researchers claim.

Psychologists from Dundee University found the more social groups a person identifies with, the “healthier” their life is.

A study of 2,000 Scots aged 18-95 found the results crossed age and gender barriers.

The results suggest group memberships are a more reliable indicator of healthy behaviours than education, age and other demographic variables.

Professor Fabio Sani said: “We believe our results show group identification will generally enhance one’s sense of meaning in life, thereby leading one to take more care of oneself.”

The team listed three types of social group, including family, community and a group of the participant’s choice, such as sport or hobby, and assessed whether they identified with each.

Those who felt part of the most groups were least likely to smoke and drink heavily and more likely to exercise and eat healthily. Participants with a weaker sense of belonging were more likely to regard themselves as depressed.

Sani said: “Too often health psychologists emphasise interpersonal interactions but ignore that these interactions tend to take place within groups, and that it is the feelings one has toward the group that determine the quality of interactions.

“No matter people’s level of education, their age or gender, it is your subjective sense of connectedness with fellow in-group members that matters most.”

The findings are published in two papers in the British Journal of Health Psychology and the academic periodical Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.

Prof Sani said: “Group identification increases one’s sense of responsibility toward other in-group members, enhancing one’s motivation to be healthy in order to fulfil those responsibilities.

“We found that people who did not identify with any social group were almost 30 times more likely to be above the cut-off point for clinical depression than people who strongly identified with three groups.


“Group identification is not equivalent to mere interaction with other group members, and our argument is that it is group identification, rather than interaction per se, that impacts upon health behaviour. What matters is the extent to which you identify with group members, the degree to which you invest psychologically in the group.”