Belonging — Book Review

Mind Your Biases

6 min readAug 27, 2023

by Adithya Solai

Table of Contents

  • Key Takeaways
  • My Review
  • Final Verdict

Key Takeaways

Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)

Fundamental Attribution Error (or FAE) is the only concept from Geoffrey Cohen’s Belonging that I have actively applied in real life and mentioned to people in conversation.

FAE is a common phenomenon where we over-extrapolate behaviors to make assumptions about a person’s underlying character. Cohen introduces FAE to encourage readers to have empathy for how a situation could be driving behavior more than personality. This sets up Cohen’s explanation of “wise intervention” strategies that can influence a situation to foster more belonging. However, FAE is a crucial lesson by itself.

This blurb encapsulates a lot of modern-day social scenarios:

We think that an action represents some simple, corresponding essence: You argued for X; you must believe X. You performed badly; you must lack ability. You committed a crime; you must lack character. We feel as though we’re forever catching people dead to rights in revealing who they really are, when what we should realize is how little we know of their circumstances (Cohen, 109).

The “You argued for X; you must believe X.” fallacy, along with FAE as a whole, is a key reason it seems impossible to have intellectual conversation with opposing views these days.

I crave nuanced political and philosophical discussion. I’ve been in “coastal elite” communities my entire life (I grew up in a privileged suburban town in New Jersey, went to school in Maryland, and now work in Seattle), so it’s easy for discussions to get stale inside a liberal echo chamber. Out of my own intellectual curiosity, I have started to play devil’s advocate and intentionally use conservative arguments with peers so that we can all learn more. I’ve been shocked at how people extrapolate my conservative arguments to make assumptions about what I believe and how I act in other areas of life (when in reality I am left-leaning). That’s FAE at work.

Belonging Uncertainty

Belonging Uncertainty is the idea that a situation can largely impact a person’s sense of belonging in a community. This concept is very related to the idea that “perception is reality”; the same situation can be experienced totally differently by two people with different backgrounds.

Luckily, Belonging Uncertainty is the most addressable issue amongst those discussed in this book. For example, a common scenario explored in Belonging is the impact of minorities not “seeing themselves” in other members of a community. Cohen presents many studies that show the effectiveness of “wise interventions” such as mentorship for minorities in an academic or professional setting (especially when the mentor is of the same background).

Us vs. Them

Cohen’s introduction of Belonging Uncertainty naturally progresses to a broader discussion of the causes and cures for insider/outsider dynamics.

The key theme of Cohen’s “wise interventions” for curing insider/outsider dynamics is crafting a situation where all participants are on equal footing and working towards a common goal. For example, Cohen recapped a study that used “jigsaw” lessons early in the academic year to establish equal footing amongst all students. In a “jigsaw” lesson, the content is split into 5 or 6 chunks, and all students are divided up to learn one chunk by themselves. Then, they are put into groups where every other student has learned a chunk that no other student in the group has. Then, each student needs to explain their chunk to the rest of the group so that everyone has effectively learned all of the content (and this is facilitated by asking students to fill out a worksheet that requires all the content).

Jigsaw Lessons are effective at turning “them” into “us” because every student has to learn from every other student, regardless of background or prior performance. This is extremely helpful for students struggling with Belonging Uncertainty since they are empowered to be a leader and teacher to others.

My Review

When reflecting on personal or professional development books, I gauge how much useful knowledge I gained relative to the time invested. Here is my summary of the gained-knowledge:time ratio for Belonging:


The usefulness of the concepts in Belonging are clear. Cohen even uses the term “wise intervention” to signal to the reader when a practical, reproducible strategy is introduced.

However, the bulk of this book’s usefulness is within Part One and Part Three. In the “Organization” section below, I explain why the book’s value falls off in Part Three.

Writing Style

This book is very dense for a casual non-fiction reader.

It is full of detailed summaries of social psychology research studies that either introduce a key concept or bolster Cohen’s arguments. Sometimes, the lengthy description of the study is not worth the punchline (especially in sections that I am indifferent to as a whole, as I explain in the “Organization” section below).

Even Cohen’s argumentative prose is sometimes so profound and generally-applicable to life that a reader is better off shutting the book for the day and pondering on what they just read.

In my review of Never Split the Difference, I called that book a “page-turner”:

Voss introduces each conversational tool with a case study from his career as an FBI hostage/terrorist negotiation expert where the tool was pivotal in reaching an agreement. The pages fly by during these case studies since they are interesting and entertaining even outside the context of a negotiation book. The FBI stories are also an enjoyable reprieve from Voss’ light digressions into psychology research and stories of how these tools were applied in the business world.

I bring this up because both Belonging and Never Split the Difference attempt to impart the reader with new perspectives and tools for everyday social interaction. However, it is clear that I personally prefer books in this genre that are heavier on narrative anecdotes and lighter on research studies.


Cohen partitions the book into 3 Parts:

  • Part One: The Science and Art of Situation-Crafting
  • Part Two: Causes and Cures
  • Part Three: Fostering Belonging in All Walks of Life

Part One & Two offer a buffet of social psychology concepts both familiar and new. Part Three aims to apply all the concepts from Part One & Two into different facets of life like school, work, health, politics, etc.

I thoroughly enjoyed Part One & Two. Cohen reviews general psychology concepts (stereotyping, Us vs. Them dynamics, etc.) with famous studies (like the Stanford Prison Experiment), while also introducing topics like FAE and Belonging Uncertainty that are more directly related to the premise of the book. He also weaves in his research contributions on these topics to garner more credibility from the reader.

I dislike like the premise and structure of Part Three, however. It is unlikely that a reader cares equally (or at all) about every facet of life in which we can apply the concepts from Part One and Two. For example, a working adult in their 20s would likely care more about “Belonging at Work” than “Belonging in School” (since they just finished schooling). Although all sections are super interesting to the target reader, it creates a less pleasurable experience on average since the reader feels obligated to read through other sections just to get to their favorite section or finish the book.

Also, one section in Part Three stands out as more specific than the others: “Belonging in Policing and the Community”. This adds to my earlier point about extremely enjoyable sections for a subset of readers, but a tedious experience on average.

I believe this section was a product of the time in which this book was published. Belonging was published in late 2022, and I feel that this section was emphasized in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. This topic could have been weaved into “Belonging in Politics”, or even used as an example in Parts One & Two. This section could have been more broad and called “Belonging in our Community”, with the policing topic mentioned within. Including sections like this that are ultra-relevant to the era in which the book was published will detract from the book’s value in 50+ years when the generally-applicable psychology concepts and strategies will hold more value than the context in which they are applied.

Final Verdict

3 out of 5 stars.

Geoffrey Cohen’s Belonging is a decent intro to social psychology that balances research and actionable strategies. However, it is not a “page-turner”, and suffers from poor organization in its final third.