Feeling socially excluded is among the most universally recognized sources of human distress. And, for most people, ostracism is also recognized as fact of life—in small doses. Of course, no one likes to feel as if they are not part of the group, and most adults and children feel at least some sense of sympathy for others who are left out.
Extreme ostracism can lead to serious emotional and psychological damage, and experts have suggested that it may even be associated with dangerous actions (eg, violent behaviors, suicide). Yet, episodes of social rejection in specific settings can surprisingly have positive effects, and this may be due to changes in the responsiveness of the brain that are mediated by the feeling of “not belonging.”
Changes in the brain resulting from social exclusion
A study reported by researchers at The University of Washington examined adults who were socially isolated in a lunchroom setting.1 The authors described engagement of the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and superior temporal gyrus in the setting of ostracism, which is predictable, given that these regions are involved in modulating emotions.
The effect of social exclusion on decision-making and cognitive problem-solving tasks was examined by a group of researchers at Texas A&M University.2 They evaluated the impact of ostracism on decision-making in study volunteers. The subjects participated in a game in which they were either included or excluded.
The participants who were included in the group were more likely to make choices based on misleading advice, while the participants who were excluded were likely to ignore advice from other people, even from those who had not excluded them. Yet, while this temporary effect of ostracism protected the study volunteers from following faulty advice, it resulted in placing excessive value on what they deemed objective information, even if that information was also misleading.
The results suggest that people who feel included in a group are more likely to follow the guidance of other people, while those who are excluded are more likely to discount the advice of other people and to search for other sources of evidence on which they can base decisions. And, the most striking result is that social ostracism causes individuals to discount advice from people who were not even in the group who excluded them.
Empathy or self-protection?
In another study, children aged 4 to 5 years were shown videos of people who were either excluded or in a neutral setting.3 The young children recognized that the individuals who were excluded in the videos felt sad, and they were asked to draw pictures of themselves with friends after viewing the videos.
Those who watched videos of people being excluded drew themselves in much closer relationships with their own friends than did the ones who watched neutral videos. Whether this childhood response is based on empathy with the people in the videos or on the childrens’ attempts to see themselves as socially connected is not clear.
While these neurological findings do not excuse the act of being mean or excluding others, they are interesting in terms of understanding how the decision-making functions of the brain can be altered based on certain life experiences. The negative experience of exclusion may improve some aspects of cognition, such as thinking about evidence more objectively without being influenced by others. But at the same time, it may deprive people of benefiting from the wisdom and experience of other people.
1. Hudac CM. Social priming modulates the neural response to ostracism: a new exploratory approach. Soc Neurosci. 2018;16:1-15.
2. Byrne KA, Tibbett TP, Laserna LN, et al. Ostracism Reduces Reliance on Poor Advice from Others during Decision Making. J Behav Decis Mak. 2016;29:409-418.
3. Song R, Over H, Carpenter M. Children draw more affiliative pictures following priming with third-party ostracism. Dev Psychol. 2015;51:831-840.