See Inside January / February 2011

The Pain of Exclusion

Even trivial episodes of ostracism can shatter your sense of self. But you can lessen-and learn from-the pain

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.

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