The psychology behind ostracism

20 May 2008

We've all been left out in a social situation at some point, and it can really hurt our feelings. Ostracism the act of being excluded and ignored has damaging psychological, behavioural and physiological consequences, but this phenomenon has only recently been the focus of empirical investigation.

Ostracism is a far reaching phenomenon, demonstrated by animals and young human children, as well as adults across cultures. It's even made formal within institutions, for example, time out in classrooms and excommunication from churches.

Dr Lisa Zadro, from the University of Sydney's School of Psychology, has been investigating how ostracism operates in the psychology of the targets (those left out) and sources (those doing the leaving out).

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"It's amazing that we're only at the early stages of scientifically investigating how ostracism works, when it is such a powerful psychological phenomenon," said Lisa. "Being ostracised can have a profound effect in a short time frame, affecting the four fundamental human psychological needs: belonging, control, self esteem and meaningful existence."

Ostracism in the classroom

Understanding how children learn to fit in and make friends avoiding ostracism is one of the key areas of research for Lisa and Sydney University psychology researchers Dr Marc de Rosnay and Dr Caroline Hunt. Having received an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant starting in 2008 for $330 000, the team will be researching the psycho social underpinnings of children's adaptation to school.

"We're really excited about this new research into how children learn to fit in and make friends," said Lisa. "The effects of ostracism can be particularly devastating for young children, so the results of this research will be really important for researchers, educators and clinicians.

"How children integrate socially in the classroom is important to analyse in a scientific way, helping us identify the factors that place children at risk of social exclusion. Early identification of these children at risk of ostracism will help us develop ways of overcoming these difficulties and making children ready for school."

"As part of this research, we're looking to recruit parents and young children to take part in our study," said Lisa.

Unravelling ostracism

Unravelling how ostracism works in the real world and the laboratory has led to some interesting findings about the immediate and long term effects of ostracism.

"We conducted structured interviews with forty adults who had been ostracised in the real world, plus we received 120 letters from others who'd experienced ostracism," Lisa explained. "From these, we found that the immediate effects included feelings of hurt, sadness and anger, plus physiological arousal and stress. These lead to lower levels of belongingness and self esteem, less perceived control over situations, and a lower perception of having a meaningful existence.

"After prolonged or repeated exposure to ostracism, psychological resources became depleted and needs became internalised, which led to feelings of alienation, learned helplessness, depression, worthlessness, and loss of purpose," said Lisa. "We also found negative health effects of prolonged exposure to ostracism."

Seeking to discover more about the effects on people who have been ostracised, Lisa and her team have conducted a series of lab based experiments to find out details such as how ostracism compares to other forms of conflict; whether ostracism leads to aggression; whether the identity of the source of ostracism matters; and whether ostracism leads to bad relationship choices.

"One of the neat experiments our team conducted tested whether ostracism leads to aggression," said Lisa. "We set up a scenario where three people in a waiting room play a 'spontaneous' ball game one of them unaware of the experiment and the other two experimenters. The third person is cut out of the ball game suddenly, introducing ostracism.

"We wanted to see whether this spontaneous ostracism would lead to aggression, so we compared people who had experienced four different conditions: ostracism with an uncontrollable annoying noise; ostracism with a controllable annoying noise; inclusion with an uncontrollable annoying noise; and inclusion with a controllable annoying noise.

"Participants were then asked to pour out serves of very hot chilli sauce for another person as part of a hoax experiment, following on from their waiting room experience. The results were fascinating the ostracised people who had experienced the uncontrollable noise had significantly different results from the others," said Lisa. "They served out an average of 26 grams of hot chilli sauce, compared to 6 grams poured out by those who had been ostracised but could control the noise.

"Looks like ostracism can lead to aggressive behaviour when there are additional uncontrollable factors very interesting results that impact the way in which we can develop coping strategies for those who experience ostracism in real life."

Lisa and co-investigator Michelle Moulds, have received an ARC Discovery Grant of $200 000 to do just that develop strategies to ameliorate the aversive effects of ostracism.