Ostracism refers to the act of ignoring and excluding individuals. It is differentiated from social exclusion in that ostracism generally requires ignoring or lack of attention in addition to social exclusion. Ostracism is distinguishable from overt acts of rejection and bullying because rather than combining acts of exclusion with verbal or physical abuse, ostracism involves giving no or little attention to the individual or groups.
Context and Importance of Ostracism
Ostracism is a powerful and universal social phenomenon. Individuals and groups ostracize and are ostracized. A variety of species other than humans have been observed using ostracism, usually to strengthen the group (by eliminating weaker or nonconforming members). Ostracism among humans was first known to be occurring in Athens more than 2,000 years ago, where citizens voted to expel individuals by writing the nominated individual on ostraca—shards of pottery. Nations and tribes, in religious, penal, and educational institutions, and among informal groups, use ostracism. In small groups or dyads, interpersonal ostracism—often referred to as the silent treatment— is common, even in close relationships and among family members.
Humans are social creatures who rely on bonds with others to fulfill fundamental social, psychological, and survival needs. Even when strangers in a minimal interaction context ostracize individuals for a very short time, ostracized individuals show signs of distress and report that their needs have been thwarted. The negative reactions to being ostracized are immediate and robust. The instant unpleasant reaction to even the most minor forms of ostracism indicate that detection of ostracism is a functionally adaptive response. With less than five minutes of exposure to ostracism, individuals report lower satisfaction levels of four fundamental needs—belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence—and higher levels of sadness and anger. Ostracism appears to be unique in threatening all four of these four basic human needs simultaneously.
Evidence for Ostracism
The reflexive reaction to ostracism is characterized by immediate and precognitive responses to being ostracized. The same region of the brain that detects physical pain, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is similarly activated during a brief episode of minimal ostracism, in which individuals believe others are not including them in a virtual ball-toss game. Researchers propose that social pain and physical pain detection architectures and mechanisms are related to emotional reactions indicative of increased caution and defensiveness such as anxiety, anger, and depression. Essentially, the current thinking is that people have a built-in mechanism that automatically detects social exclusion, registers it as pain, and then triggers coping responses to combat the pain of ostracism.
This effect is argued to be precognitive in the sense that factors that should minimize its distress appear to have no effect as the ostracism occurs. Thus, distress, subjective pain, and thwarted needs are reported whether or not the ostracizers are friends, rivals, or despised others, or even if it is clear to the individuals that they are being ostracized by the computer.
The reflective response to ostracism is characterized by deliberate and thoughtful reactions following the social pain reaction to being ostracized. Coping with ostracism is aimed at recovering or fortifying the threatened needs. Because fortifying these needs may result in conflict responses, coping responses are more likely to be variable across situations and people. Thus, one can fortify a loss to belonging or self-esteem by trying to behave in ways that will meet the group’s approval, by joining a new group, or even by thinking of strong ties in other realms of one’s life. Fortifying control and existence needs, however, might lead to exerting social control over others, provoking recognition and reactions in others, and even aggression and violence.
The collected findings suggest that with reflection, people can presumably cope with meaningless or inconsequential forms of ostracism, despite the fact that these forms of ostracism are initially detected as painful. Given time to consider the circumstances, individual tendencies for coping and the consideration of relevant situational factors ought to moderate ostracism’s negative impact. For example, researchers found that although immediate reactions to ostracism were similarly negative for individuals low and high on social anxiety, only individuals high in social anxiety continued to feel less need satisfaction 45 minutes later. Other research also alludes to the importance of time when it comes to responses to social exclusion.
Methods to Experimentally Induce Ostracism
A variety of interesting and efficient methods have induced ostracism. These include being told that after a group get-acquainted interaction, no one wished to work with the individual, receiving a personality prognosis of living a life alone, and being ignored and excluded in a conversation, ball-toss game, Internet ball-toss game (Cyberball), a chat room, or text messaging on cell phones. Each method has advantages and disadvantages and is likely to contribute to the variety of coping responses that have been observed.
Implications of Ostracism
Ostracism, in all its many forms, permeates almost every aspect of an individual’s life. One form of short-term ostracism, time-out, is used routinely in schools and homes, and a majority of individuals report having it used on them by loved ones, and using it on loved ones. Research indicates that on average, individuals report experiencing one act of ostracism a day. Research into the nature and interpersonal and intrapersonal costs of this ubiquitous phenomenon continues. Current research focuses on the conditions under which ostracism leads to generally prosocial responses and when it leads to antisocial, even violent responses.
- Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.
- Williams, K. D. (2001). Ostracism: The power of silence. New York: Guilford Press.
- Williams, K. D., Forgas, J. P., & von Hippel, W. (Eds.). (2005). The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying. New York: Psychology Press.