Psychology and Community Building

Building a community through the understanding of human needs.

Christina Garnett
Jan 13 · 5 min read
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Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

After the events of 2020, it’s hard to argue the impact that community can have for brands and individuals. With a global population stuck at home, our ability to connect and communicate has shifted more than it ever has before. Groups of like-minded people have found each other online, on social, and connected with complete strangers.

Remember when our parents warned us not to talk to strangers? Those are now our closest friends.

We want to belong, be seen, and be understood.


We want to belong. We need to belong.

Multiple papers address the need to belong as a key driver in human behavior. The concept of the belongingness hypothesis becomes a significant argument in how we behave even as children. What we do so we can feel a sense of belonging with others — parents, family, and potential friends.

Anyone who has walked into a school lunchroom knows what it’s like to seek your place. You immediately survey the room to find your people. To find where you fit and feel welcome.

They look like (and are) cliques in a lunchroom — small groups of people that come together based on shared interests. You have the jocks, the nerds, the popular kids, or for my Harry Potter fans; you have houses. These small groups are a core part of how we determine our self-identity as teenagers and create a foundation for fostering peer relationships in the future. What makes these cliques is also at the heart of communities.

We do the same thing online. We try to find our people. We self identify ourselves by our work, favorite sports teams, where we live, our race, or sexual orientation. We actively seek to find those who love what we love. Value what we value. We seek those who are like ourselves because it removes the barrier of being other. Commonality makes us feel less weird, less unwanted. We become a part of a social norm, even if it’s within our group.


We want to be seen and heard.

It’s easy to suggest that all of us are online because we’re narcissists. We want people to see how attractive we are, how smart we are, how funny we are. It makes sense that even the most introverted of us find it less intimidating to share our thoughts through a keyboard versus having to espouse those same thoughts out loud and in public.

Narcissism is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, a need for excessive admiration, and the belief that one is unique and deserving of special treatment.”

Does that sound like how many of us behave online? Just by posting, it suggests that we believe someone else will find worth in what we have to say.

We share our greatest accomplishments and quote tweet the posts that make us angry. We yell at brand accounts when we’re frustrated, forgetting that another human is consuming all of our vitriol.

We measure our self-worth in follower counts, and we clamor for the opportunity to one day be verified.

So what does this have to do with community building?

Communities create a place where that can feed this part of us. The ability to connect with a core group of others provides an environment where you can engage with others that celebrate your wins and want to hear your thoughts.

Instead of merely speaking into the void, a community is there to listen, engage, and amplify. A strong community works to elevate members, empowering them to grow and share that same environment for future members. It creates a member culture that encourages positive engagements with others, so the community manager is not the sole voice of positivity and growth. The community managers are building an army. They need to build up leadership opportunities within the community, so others feel empowered to step up and help foster the community’s hallmark traits. This empowerment can be seen through the addition of moderators, identification of conversation starters, and more.

This play, in itself, creates ownership within the community. The most ardent fans become a further beacon of what the community is all about. The members become the ultimate reflection of what nonmembers can expect.

Emotional and Cognitive Empathy

We want to be understood.

Empathy isn’t a new concept, yet it has been a major talking point with the events of 2020. Why? Because it seemed to be missing everywhere we looked.

We only care about the consequences of others if we care about them individually. When a pandemic hit, it became clear the virus didn’t exist for many unless it hit someone they knew personally. That personal consequence was the only burden on truth. The numbers of lost strangers were simply numbers, compared to crowds rejecting the inconvenience of masks.

Brands continued their social messaging and ads as if the events of 2020 were nothing new — that we weren’t trapped in a breaking news tornado of anguish and death. Constantly seeking relief while needing to stay up to date with current events, people coupled their daily doomscrolling with burnout. Homes, once a refuge from the dredges of work, became assimilated into corporate culture. The war for what work-life balance existed faded away. Children, pets, and whatever we chose as our Zoom backdrops become a part of our work duties.

When people look at communities, they not only look for value but also comradery. They seek to find those who self identify the way they do. That connection to those with a similar self-identity removes barriers associated with speaking honestly about their feelings and concerns. It isn’t enough to hope that others will be empathetic. We cling to those who do the same work as us, live in the same areas, love the same sports teams. You know they will intrinsically understand you.

That cognitive empathy, based on shared self-identification and experiences, makes it easier for others in your community to truly experience the pain, anxiety, and stress associated with critical aspects of life. We can swap ourselves into the person’s everyday experience because we have experienced something similar.

In contrast, emotional empathy is what we most associate with the concept of empathy itself. It goes deeper than being able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. With emotional empathy, you can experience those emotions, and due to it, you feel distressed for another person. You feel compelled to take action and help. With cognitive empathy, you understand. With emotional empathy, you feel.

A core need for joining a community is seeking to be understood. You seek that cognitive empathy. Although, you hope (consciously or unconsciously) to find a few that genuinely empathize on an emotional level.

If you want to create and build a community, it’s easy to get lost in a laundry list of value adds and resources. If you don’t get the emotional and psychological needs met, though, you will not be providing what your potential members really need.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Christina Garnett

Written by

Community Builder + Strategist | Social Listening Analyst | Featured in The Startup, Better Marketing, and Digital Vault, and The Next Web | In The Trenches

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Christina Garnett

Written by

Community Builder + Strategist | Social Listening Analyst | Featured in The Startup, Better Marketing, and Digital Vault, and The Next Web | In The Trenches

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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