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Mental Health Center

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Why Ostracism Hurts

For kids on the playground and adults in the workplace, being left out affects the brain, new research shows.
WebMD Magazine - Feature

When Debra Yergen switched jobs, she got the cold shoulder from people she considered close friends.

Yergen had spent three years working at a community hospital in Washington state, but when she started her new position as director of communications for a regional medical center that competed with the hospital, her old work buddies disappeared -- presumably because she left for the competition.

"At first, I thought my friends were just busy," Yergen, now 40, says. "But when the holidays rolled around, I realized they were out of my life."

The Effects of Ostracism

Unfortunately, excluding others to punish them for perceived or real social gaffes prevails throughout the animal kingdom, and humans are as likely to do it as lions or chimps, says Purdue University psychologist Kipling D. Williams, PhD.

Ostracism causes real pain, Williams says, because our basic need for belonging, self-esteem, control, and recognition is thwarted. When people in a study were excluded in a simulated game of ball toss, brain scans showed more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that responds to pain, as well as the right ventral prefrontal cortex, an area involved in coping with pain. Williams' research identified three stages of the response to being left out: pain, coping, and -- if the exclusion goes on for a long time -- depression and a feeling of helplessness. That can have serious consequences: in 13 of 15 U.S. school shooting incidents between 1995 and 2001, the shooters had been ostracized at school.

When it comes to dealing with ostracism, "there's a whole package of behaviors, thoughts, and perceptions you use to try to improve the chances you'll get included," Williams says. Those who feel excluded tend to pay closer attention to people's facial expressions and unconsciously mimic their body language. They may go out of their way to please. Some people try to force others to pay attention to them. On the playground, that could mean shoving or hitting. In the workplace, it can show up as more subtly aggressive behavior such as making demeaning comments about others.

Cognitive therapy helped Yergen mourn those lost friendships. "I realized I'm in control of how I respond," she says. "That doesn't mean there aren't periods of grieving, but by getting help to process it, I can put it in a place where it doesn't have to cause me ongoing pain."

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