If you’ve ever been left out and excluded in a social situation, you’ve been ostracized. It’s a common human experience, happening as often as once a day or more, but it’s not any fun. It doesn’t even have to a close friend or family member to sting—it can hurt even when a stranger excludes us.
Research in social psychology has investigated the impacts of this common unpleasant experience. What does it feel like to be ostracized? What do people do when they feel excluded? Let’s look at just some of what these studies have found.
Feeling Excluded Hurts…Literally?
If you feel excluded, you might say something like “you hurt my feelings!” But when you say “hurt,” you obviously mean it metaphorically…or do you?
Emerging evidence in neuroscience has suggested that the physical feeling of pain (from, say, stubbing your toe) and the social/emotional feeling of pain (from ostracism) overlap in terms of how your brain processes it. That is to say, the same area of the brain that we know to be involved in processing physically painful feelings—the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex—is also relatively active when people have just been excluded.
Further evidence has shown that taking acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol)—a common pain reliever—was capable of reducing feelings of social rejection over a three-week period, compared to placebo. Once again, as far as your brain’s chemistry is concerned, feeling ostracized seems a lot like experiencing real physical pain.
Feeling Excluded Hurts Psychologically
Obviously, being socially rejected and stubbing your toe aren’t exactly the same experience. Lots of research has established that even a brief experience of being rejected by a total stranger can make people feel sad and angry.
Even more than these negative emotions, though, feeling left out can mess with some fundamental psychological needs. For one, people feel a reduced sense of general belongingness after experiencing rejection. This is a big deal because psychologists argue that achieving a sense of social belonging is afundamental psychological need.
It would be bad enough if ostracism just reduced feelings of belonging, but being rejected can reduce self-esteem, a sense of control, and a sense of having a meaningful existence.
What’s more, these negative reactions seem to apply regardless of who’s rejecting you. Whether it’s someone in your own group or someone who you don’t relate to, ostracism stings. Whether it’s a human or a computer who rejects you, ostracism stings. Even if you think the person who’s rejecting you is someone you despise (like a KKK member), ostracism still stings!
So regardless of who might reject us, that feeling of being excluded produces a range of harmful consequences. I think we can agree that these aren’t great outcomes. So what do people do in response to these feelings?
People Look to Be Included Again
If feeling left out makes you feel reduced social belonging, the natural thing to do is try to make social connections again. After all, you should try to restore what seems missing. A whole bunch of research has shown that this is what tends to happen.
As a simple illustration, one study found that people who were made to feel social rejection went on to express greater interest in making friends than people in control conditions. Similarly, after feeling social exclusion, people are more interested in working on a project with a partner rather than on their own, compared to people who weren’t feeling excluded.
In addition, people who have been ostracized are also better tuned to social information, more likely to conform with a group, cooperate with other people, and nonconsciously mimic a stranger (which helps establish greater rapport).
The Exclusion Conclusion
It’s clear that ostracism is a critically important concept in social psychology. I’ve written before on this blog about how important social connection is—many say it’s fundamental. So interrupting that connection can be damaging in many ways. This review is just one part of all the work that has been done. Other work has shown how people lash out with aggression in response to feeling ostracized, how rejection can impair people’s self-control, and psychologists have also considered the long-term effects of persistent social exclusion.
These effects are important to consider, especially in the domain of bullying and other everyday cases of exclusion, so keep in mind these negative impacts ostracism can have before cavalierly excluding a friend or stranger.
1. Or paracetamol for my overseas friends.
About the Author
Andy Luttrell is a Social Psychologist and has recently finished his PhD. Now he’s continuing to conduct research in the area of attitudes and persuasion while teaching the world about psychology.