According to self-determination theory, one of the fundamental needs that has to be supported to sustain motivation is relatedness, or a sense of connection to something bigger than oneself. That something could be another person, a group, a cause, a faith; the what doesn’t matter so long as no one feels totally alone.
When I talk about motivation, I always stress that people do differ in how much they need each of the ingredients of motivation (autonomy, competence, and relatedness). If we all had exactly the same needs, it would be far easier to design motivating experiences because the same solution would work for everyone. In fact, there’s a lot of variation.
One psychological perspective that I think helps explain differences in the need for relatedness is called optimal distinctiveness. This concept was pioneered by Marilynn Brewer, now a visiting professor in Australia.
Optimal distinctiveness basically means how much your idea of yourself overlaps with the idea of the groups you belong to. There is a tension between our desires for independence and affiliation. The level of overlap can change in different situations. When we feel insecure or when it is advantageous to be part of the group, we might feel a bigger overlap between ourselves and the group. At any moment, there is a “right” or optimal level of overlap between ourselves and the group that makes us feel happy and psychologically secure.
I think that when we think about how much any individual person needs their sense of relatedness supported by a product or experience, optimal distinctiveness is a useful concept to consider. People who have a greater need for assimilation in a particular situation likely need more relatedness support, whereas people on the distinctiveness side of the equation at the moment may need less.
Brewer, M. B., (1991). The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17, 475-482.
Brewer, M. B., & Gardner, W. (1996). Who is this “we”? Levels of collective identity and self representations.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 83-93.