Why Ostracism Hurts

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

Medically Reviewed by Patricia A. Farrell, PhD on February 01, 2012
3 min read

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."

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."

Ostracism always hurts. But as Williams notes, there are ways to reduce the sting -- and break the ugly cycle of exclusion:

Tap other support. If you're excluded from one group, for example, on the job, look for support elsewhere. "Don't put all your eggs in one basket," Williams says. "Have different groups of friends."

Don't ostracize your children. Giving a kid the silent treatment when you're angry can damage your relationship, Williams says. "If you absolutely feel you have to remove yourself from the situation, give an end point to it," he advises. For example, say, "I can't talk to you right now, so I'm going to leave for a few minutes. When I come back, we can talk."

Teach kids that exclusion hurts. Exclusion is an insidious form of bullying, Williams believes, and harder to document because it's the absence of behavior. Talk to children about how much it hurts, whether they're victims or perps. At the Williams household, the rule is, "You can't say 'you can't play.' "