Today’s selection is from “The Pain of Exclusion” by Kipling D. Williams
Publisher: Scientific American Mind
Date: January/February 2011
Our need to matter and our need to belong are as fundamental as our need to eat and breathe. Therefore ostracism — rejection, silence, exclusion — is one of the most powerful punishments that one person can inflict on another. Brain scans have shown that this rejection is actually experienced as physical pain, and that this pain is experienced whether those that reject us are close friends or family or total strangers, and whether the act is overt exclusion or merely looking away. Most typically, ostracism causes us to act to be included again — to belong again — although not necessarily with the same group:
“Studies reveal that even subtle, artificial or ostensibly unimportant exclusion can lead to strong emotional reactions. A strong reaction makes sense when your spouse’s family or close circle of friends rejects or shuns you, because these people are important to you. It is more surprising that important instances of being barred are not necessary for intense feelings of rejection to emerge. We can feel awful even after people we have never met simply look the other way.
“This reaction serves a function: it warns us that something is wrong, that there exists a serious threat to our social and psychological well-being. Psychologists Roy Baumeister of Florida State University and Mark Leary of Duke University had argued in a 1995 article that belonging to a group was a need — not a desire or preference — and, when thwarted, leads to psychological and physical illness. Meanwhile other researchers have hypothesized that belonging, self-esteem, a sense of control over your life and a belief that existence is meaningful constitute four fundamental psychological needs that we must meet to function as social individuals. …
“Ostracism uniquely threatens all these needs. Even in a verbal or physical altercation, individuals are still connected. Total exclusion, however, severs all bonds. Social rejection also deals a uniquely harsh blow to self-esteem, because it implies wrongdoing. Worse, the imposed silence forces us to ruminate, generating self-deprecating thoughts in our search for an explanation. The forced isolation also makes us feel helpless: you can fight back, but no one will respond. Finally, ostracism makes our very existence feel less meaningful because this type of rejection makes us feel invisible and unimportant. The magnitude of the emotional impact of ostracism even makes evolutionary sense. After all, social exclusion interferes not only with reproductive success but also with survival. People who do not belong are not included in collaborations necessary to obtain and share food and also lack protection against enemies.
“In fact, the emotional fallout is so poignant that the brain registers it as physical pain. … As soon as [we begin] to feel ostracized, [brain] scanners register a flurry of activity in [our] dorsal anterior cingulate cortex — a brain region associated with the emotional aspects of physical pain. …
“For most people, ostracism usually engenders a concerted effort to be included again, though not necessarily by the group that shunned us. We do this by agreeing with, mimicking, obeying or cooperating with others. In our 2000 study, for example, Cheung and Choi asked participants to perform a perceptual task in which they had to memorize a simple shape such as a triangle and correctly identify the shape within a more complex figure. Before they made their decision, we flashed the supposed answers of other participants on the screen. Those who had been previously ostracized … were more likely than included players to give the same answers as the majority of participants, even though the majority was always wrong. Those who had been excluded wanted to fit in, even if that meant ignoring their own better judgment.
“Although personality seems to have no influence on our immediate reactions to ostracism, character traits do affect how quickly we recover from it and how we cope with the experience. … People who are socially anxious tend to ruminate or are prone to depression take longer to recover from ostracism than other people do.”