Ostracism is more powerful now than ever because people have fewer strong family and friend support systems to fall back on when faced with exclusion in relationships, the workplace or even Internet chat rooms, says a Purdue University social psychologist.
"The effects of ostracism are a health concern," says Kipling Williams, professor of psychological sciences who researches ostracism. "Excluding and ignoring people, such as giving them the cold shoulder or silent treatment, are used to punish or manipulate, and people may not realize the emotional or physical harm that is being done. Some purposely hurt others by not inviting them to a party or ignoring them at work, and others may not even realize they are ostracizing someone when they ignore a new temporary employee or a friend after a disagreement.
"In the past, people who were ostracized at work or by a friend could seek support and control through another significant relationship. But because people report growing more distant from extended family and relying on fewer close friendships, they might lack the support to deal with ostracism."
This is one of the topics covered in Williams' "The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection and Bullying." Williams co-edited the book and also wrote a chapter about a theory of ostracism. The book ($75) was released by Psychology Press in June, and the co-editors are Joseph B. Forgas and William von Hippel.
When a person is ostracized for even a brief period of time, the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that detects pain, is activated, Williams says. People experience the same initial pain when excluded by strangers or close friends, or even enemies. However, the pain may not linger once the person has had time to consider the importance of the group which has excluded him or her or had time to talk about it with a friend, Williams says.
"Ostracism is one of the most widely used forms of social punishment, and some see it as more humane than corporal punishment, as when used in a time-out, but there is a deeper psychological impact that needs to be taken seriously," he says. "We know that when people are ostracized, it can affect their perceptions, physiological conditions, attitude and behavior - all of which sometimes can lead to aggression."
Ostracism, like the silent treatment and cold shoulder, are very common for two reasons, Williams says.
"First, they're powerful," Williams says. "And second, you can get away with them. If people are physically or verbally abusive, they can be punished. But it's hard to punish someone for not making eye contact or ignoring another person. If the person is confronted by asking, 'Why are you not talking to me?,' the person can easily deny the accusation."
Sometimes ostracism is unintentional. Temporary employees, for example, report that they are frequently ostracized.
"They feel invisible," Williams says. "Other workers don't want to make friends or even introduce themselves because that person is not expected to remain with the company for long. Temporary workers feel ignored and excluded, and this can affect their performance in the office."
Williams has interviewed people who have experienced the silent treatment at work, from friends, and often by spouses or family members. In one case, a woman was given the silent treatment by her husband during the last 40 years of their marriage. He also spoke to a father who was so mad at a teenage son that the father ignored the son for several weeks, not even setting a place at the dinner table for the boy.
There is also an irony about the attraction of ostracism. Many children's games, such as musical chairs and keep-a-way, are based on some form of social exclusion. And just like children's games, adults also find exclusion entertaining, Williams says. Much of today's reality television programming is about excluding and rejecting people.
"These shows provide a safe way people can share in this painful experience," Williams says. "It's like riding a roller-coaster. Most people don't like to fall, but riding a roller-coaster is a safe way to feel like you are falling."
Lions, primates, wolves and bees are just some of the animals that use ostracism as a punitive device or to make their groups stronger.
"Ostracism is present in the animal kingdom and is often used to increase a group's chance for survival by basically excluding the weakest link," Williams says. "For example, if a lion is hurt and holding the pride up, then that lion may be pushed away."
However, humans use ostracism for more complex reasons. The people who are ostracizing often feel a strong sense of belonging with each other, as well as feeling empowered, Williams says. People who are excluded react one of two ways. The most common reaction is to try to improve a person's characteristics or behavior so they are included or fit in. Or, people who are excluded frequently become destructive and vindictive.
Many people also use ostracism as a tool to gain control of a situation.
"This is why time-outs work so well when disciplining children," Williams says. "We ostracize them as motivation for them to behave."
The silent treatment also can be an asset when you are trying to argue with someone who is more articulate.
Instead, he suggests, if a person reverts to using the silent treatment, then he or she should say, 'I can't talk to you right now, but we will talk tomorrow.' "
In recent research, Williams, along with Wayne A. Warburton and David Cairns from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, found those who are ostracized tend to respond aggressively when they lack control of the situation. Their research, which is scheduled to appear in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology this fall, is available online.
The Australian Research Council provided funding for Williams' work for the book and journal article.