Consequences of Ostracism

Ostracism is painful and threatens the basic need to belong. After being ostracized people are motivated to restore this need and achieve a sense of belonging. Troublingly, this suggests that ostracism can leave people vulnerable to recruitment into extreme groups. Just as unappetizing foods become appealing to someone who is especially hungry, extreme groups can become appealing to someone who is starved of social connection. I found evidence for this proposition in two experiments that are currently under review. I found that being ostracized during Cyberball, a brief online ball tossing game, is sufficient to increase participants’ willingness to attend a meeting of an extreme activist group on campus, and also sufficient to increase openness to the idea of joining a gang. 

A second consequence of ostracism I have investigated is personality change. Correlational evidence shows that people who are chronically ostracized tend to be more disagreeable. As one might expect, this relationship appears to be caused in large part by disagreeable people being common targets of ostracism. However, the reverse causal pathway also appears to exist: a single episode of ostracism temporarily increases disagreeableness. This work implies that being ostracized over time exacerbates the very trait that elicits ostracism from others, suggesting the potential of a negative downward spiral.

Responding to Ostracism

Given these serious consequences, I have also directed my attention to the question of how people can ease the pain of being ostracized. The most straightforward remedy for ostracism is its antithesis: attention and acknowledgment from others. My collaborators and I have shown that acknowledgment from others can meaningfully ease the negative effects of ostracism. Being noticed by others is so important that we find that being acknowledged produces more positive responses to ostracism even when that acknowledgment is very minor, and even when it is unfriendly in nature.

Attention and acknowledgment aren't always available following ostracism. What else can be done? One (not recommended) method for numbing the reflexive pain of ostracism is alcohol consumption. This is reflected in the common expression “drinking the pain away.” Does alcohol reduce the pain of ostracism? I conducted an experiment at a local bar with participants who had been drinking alcohol and agreed to play Cyberball, in which they were either ostracized or included. There was a general numbing pattern in which the effects of ostracism on basic needs and mood were less severe in those who felt intoxicated. 

Obviously, being drunk is a poor strategy for coping with ostracism. In search of healthier coping strategies, I have also investigated another approach to managing the pain of ostracism, which is to speed recovery after the initial pain has occurred. In experiments, I have found that people recover more when they are given the opportunity to engage in self-affirmation, prayer, or distraction.