- Even brief episodes of ostracism involving strangers or people we dislike activate the brain’s pain centers, incite sadness and anger, increase stress, lower self-esteem and rob us of a sense of control.
- We all feel the pain of ostracism about equally, no matter how tough or sensitive we are. Personality traits do, however, influence how well we cope.
- Detecting ostracism quickly increases the likelihood that an individual can respond in such a way as to stay in a group and, literally or figuratively, survive the ordeal.
One afternoon in the mid-1980s I was sitting in a park on a blanket beside my dog when a Frisbee rolled up and hit me in the back. I turned around and spotted two guys standing a short distance away with hopeful looks. After standing to return their Frisbee, I moved to sit back down, when, to my surprise, the two strangers threw the disk back to me—an invitation. We formed a triangle on the grass, beginning a spontaneous game of three-way toss. But minutes later, for no discernible reason, they stopped throwing the Frisbee to me. At first, it was sort of funny, but when it became clear that they were not going to include me again, I felt foolish, awkward and hurt. I felt ostracized.
I slunk back to my blanket and dog—and got an idea. As an assistant professor of psychology then at Drake University, I had long wanted to study ostracism, but I never knew how. The scenario in the park had required no conversation, no prior acquaintance and no expectation of future interaction. Yet it was emotionally powerful. I realized I could re-create my experience in the park as a virtual ball toss or Frisbee game in which certain players are excluded—and thereby take it into the lab.
This article was originally published with the title The Pain of Exclusion.