People who ostracize – ignore or exclude – others incur psychological costs.  Researchers who recently explored whether people suffer psychological costs when they comply with social directives to ignore or exclude cause others reached that conclusion.  The pressure to ignore or exclude someone has become an “all too common” experience, and the authors noted that this pressure to ostracize occurs “particularly among girls”.  Early experiments which involved inflicting physical pain on non-threatening others showed that the “compliant” participants felt “agitated, anxious, and guilty”.  Looking at a different type of harm, this research study’s results showed that those who complied with requests to inflict social pain suffered distress similar to their victims.

People ask friends or peers to inflict social pain on others.  These requests stem from  prejudice, e.g. against a member of an outgroup, or relate to personal reasons, e.g. romantic rival.  Decades of research has implied that complying with such directives or threats goes against our “hard-wiring” because we generally care about and typically avoid harming others.  The results of this recent study unraveled the inconsistent results from prior research. We now know that when someone directs you to inflict social pain on another, in complying with that “request”, you get hurt too.  Ostracism hurts not only the victim, but also the perpetrator.

A well-established stream of research has shown that the victims of ostracism – those excluded by others or ignored by others – suffer social pain.  We experience this pain because we depend heavily on social connections.  The social pain of the experience of being ignored or excluded by others triggers the same neural activation as physical pain.  Ostracism thwarts the victims’ psychological needs.  Prior research has also shown that we can vicariously experience this social pain merely by observing the ostracism of others.  The research stream on the experiences of ostracizers has lagged behind research about the suffering of their targets.  The authors assessed that previous work as “sparse”.

Using a framework of self-determination theory of motivation and personality, their study set out to investigate why ostracism might exact psychological costs for the perpetrator and victim alike.  The authors indicate that their findings “shed new light on the psychological dynamics of ostracism”.  These findings, obtained by two experiments guided by self-determination theory, have relevance for workplace managers and leaders.  Ostracism can relate to commitment, effort, high-quality performance, and, concerning relational aggression and bullying, the psychological needs and well-being of employees in the workplace.

Self-determination theory, an approach to human motivation and personality, highlights our inner resources, our personalities, and self-regulation, our behavior.  We all have growth tendencies and innate psychological needs.  These serve as bases for our self-motivation.  The researchers have identified three needs “that appear to be essential for facilitating optimal growth and integration, as well as for constructive social development and personal well-being” (Ryan & Deci, 2000).  The three needs are:  competence (concerns need to feel useful), relatedness (concerns need to feel connected to and cared for by others), and autonomy (need to feel that one’s behavior is your own and what you want to do).   If an individual has these three basic needs satisfied across time, then according to the theory, one will experience an ongoing sense of integrity and well-being.  If not satisfied, the deficit contributes to an individual’s ill-being and pathology.  Ryan and Deci (2000) noted how a study conducted over twenty years ago showed that this need satisfaction predicted employees’ performance and well-being at work (Baard, Deci, & Ryan, 1998).

Findings from studies regarding self-determination theory within the last five years have suggested that helping others satisfies the need for autonomy and un-selfish, i.e. relational goals, satisfy relatedness goals.  According to the authors, these findings suggest that complying with requests to ostracize may undermine the ostracizer’s psychological needs.  Ostracism undermines autonomy because we do not usually choose to harm others.  Ostracism also undermines relatedness because it prevents us from connecting with others.

With that theoretical background, the researchers tested (1) whether the act of ostracism exacted psychological costs by thwarting one’s psychological needs for autonomy and relatedness and (2) compared the psychological costs of ostracism between victims and perpetrators.  They ran two studies, each study had participants play Cyberball, a computerized ball-tossing game.  The participants also had their baseline mood state and state autonomy, competence, and relatedness assessed with the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) and the Basic Psychological Needs scales, respectively.  Following the ball-tossing game, in which the researchers divided the participants into ostracizer, neutral, or compliance groups, in Experiment 1, and ostracized, ostracizer, and neutral, in Experiment 2, the participants completed the same measures used at baseline.

In Experiment 1, which conservatively tested whether the act of ostracizing exacts psychological costs, the ostracizers had higher levels of negative affect and lower levels of autonomy and relatedness.  The researchers concluded “Findings thus confirmed our expectation that ostracizing others leads to negative affect because it thwarts psychological needs.”  Experiment 2 compared the costs of ostracizing with those of being ostracized.  Ostracizers felt more guilt and shame than the other groups.  The ostracized felt more anger.  These two groups felt more distress than the neutral condition.  The researchers’ stated “Thus, being the victim or the perpetrator of ostracism let to higher negative affect, with thwarted psychological needs fully explaining these effects.”

This research study has important implications for the developmental outcomes of people who comply with directives to cause social pain.  They harm themselves by complying with requests to ostracize others.  We know more now about the psychological dynamics of ostracism.  Ostracizers incur psychological costs:  higher levels of negative affect, thwarted psychological needs of autonomy and relatedness, guilt, and shame.  According to the authors, “the affective costs of ostracizing other people were comparable to those of experiencing ostracism as a victim, but that the perpetrators of ostracism showed more thwarting of their need for autonomy than did victims of ostracism or participants in the neutral condition.”  The new light shed on this important topic begins what the authors  describe as a “critical agenda” to take forward.  Why?  The answer has been stated by other researchers:  “If exposure to ostracism continues over a long period of time, then the individual’s resources for coping are depleted, and he or she is likely to experience alienation, depression, helplessness, and unworthiness” (Williams &  Nida, 2011). It seems that nothing threatens our social nature more than being ignored or excluded or ignoring or excluding others.

The take-away here:  do not ignore or exclude nonthreatening others in compliance with a request to inflict social pain.  You not only hurt another by ostracizing that person, but since you have no immunity, by inflicting social pain on another, you thwart your own psychological needs and hurt yourself, too.

Article Source:  Legate N, Dehaan CR, Weinstein N, & Ryan RM (2013). Hurting you hurts me too: the psychological costs of complying with ostracism. Psychological science, 24 (4), 583-8 PMID: 23447557.  See Also:  Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of instrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 58-78. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68; Williams, K.D. & Nida, S.A. (2011). Ostracism:  Consequences and coping. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(2), 71-75. DOI:  10.1177/0963721411402480.

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Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.

One Response to Ostracism Hurts: The Psychological Costs of Ignoring or Excluding Others

  1. C Horne says:

    What if you mix in sociopathy as a characteristic of the ostracizer?