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 The victim becomes withdrawn, anxious, and depressed, often avoiding social interaction.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.
In a second study, participants were again tested in ostracizing and neutral conditions, as well as in an ostracized condition (here, participants were intentionally left out of the game). Those who actively shunned others felt more guilt, shame, and anger than those in the neutral or even the ostracized condition. They were also the only group to report diminished autonomy.
Of course these studies examined immediate or short-term effects of social exclusion, and may not be reflective of long-term consequences for victims or bullies. Unfortunately, emerging longitudinal work out of Duke University suggests that the repercussions of bullying may persist long after the event, even into adulthood. In a sample of over 1200 children and adolescents, for example, roughly 25 percent reported being bullied at least once before the age of 16, and those who were bullied had higher levels of anxiety disorders as young adults. A number of other studies indicate that children who are ostracized may in turn become aggressive toward others, and in the Duke study 20 percent of those who were bullied were also aggressors. Those who were both victims and bullies experienced the most significant long-term consequences, with the highest rates of depressive disorders, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and suicidality.
It seems then that bullies may have as much to lose as their victims. The good news is that in recent years a number anti-bullying campaigns have emerged, including school programs, support websites, and social media efforts (e.g., Not in Our School, Love is Louder, It's My Life, Stop Bullying). In 2011, Lee Hirsh produced the documentary Bully, which highlighted five different cases of abusive, destructive bullying and spawned The Bully Project, an initiative lauded by mainstream media and endorsed by numerous celebrities, including Katie Couric, Martha Stewart, Naya Rivera, Cory Monteith and others. Even President Obama has joined the fray, supporting public policy and legislation aimed at extinguishing bullying in schools. If these anti-bullying initiatives and policies prove effective, maybe, just this once, everybody wins.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.