The story is all too familiar: A middle school student is tripped while walking down the aisle of a school bus, and the entire busload of children erupts in laughter. In the ensuing days and weeks, the same young student is shoved in the stairwell, harassed in the lunch room, and ridiculed online. Classmates are vicious and unyielding in their attacks, often recruiting others to join in the torment, and targeting anyone who attempts to thwart their assault. The victim becomes withdrawn, anxious, and depressed, often avoiding social interaction. Grades often plummet. In some cases the victim may lash out, seeking retribution against the bullies or even bullying other innocent students in an attempt to regain some social control and status. In the worst cases, the victim may become so despondent that the aggression turns inward and results in suicide.
It’s not terribly surprising that scientific research confirms the widespread costs experienced by people who are bullied. The initial experience of social exclusion appears to be much like that of physical pain, as the same brain region (an area known as the anterior cingulate cortex) is activated when people experience social ostracism and physical pain; moreover, the level of brain activation during an ostracizing experience correlates with self-reported feelings of distress. Other studies have demonstrated that participants who are excluded from a social conversation or an interactive game for only a few minutes experience heightened sadness and anger, as well reductions in self-esteem and feelings of control. The distress associated with exclusion is significant even when people know that the ostracizing players are members of a despised outgroup (e.g., KKK), or simply computer simulations. Indeed, just watching someone else get ignored is enough to put us in a bad mood.
What is surprising, however, is the recent finding that social exclusion hurts the perpetrators as well as the victims. Bullying, it seems, cuts both ways. The consequences of isolating or ostracizing another person may include heightened feelings of anger, shame, and guilt, as well as a sense of social disconnection. In a series of studies by Nicole Legate and colleagues, for example, individuals who complied with instructions to shun others suffered socially and emotionally as a result of the experience. For these studies, participants engaged in Cyberball, a computerized ball-tossing game in which participants believed they were engaging with two other players. In reality, however, the two other players were computers programmed to respond in specific ways. Despite the fact that participants never met the other "players" in person, they nonetheless suffered when they intentionally excluded one of those players from the game.
In one study, some participants were directly instructed to exclude another player from the game (ostracizing condition), while other participants were given no such instructions (neutral condition). The experimenters hypothesized that participants who engaged in willful social exclusion would experience diminished autonomy, a reduced connection with other players, and an increase in negative affect. To be sure that these consequences resulted from engaging in ostracism, per se, and not merely from following directive play instructions, a third group of participants was told to throw the ball equally to all players (inclusion condition). Data showed that players in both the ostracizing and the inclusion conditions reported reduced autonomy relative to players in the neutral condition, but the ostracizing condition experienced the most severe autonomy reduction. In addition, only players in the ostracizing condition reported an increase in negative affect and a degraded sense of connection with others.