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The Social Death Penalty: Why Being Ostracized Hurts Even More Than Bullying

In the wake of Elliot Rodger, questions about social rejection take on new urgency.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

In recent years, bullying and harassment at work and in school have been grabbing headlines, creating greater awareness. But there’s a dehumanizing experience that is just as common, perhaps even more damaging to targets, and far less well-understood.

We’re talking about ostracism, a form of social rejection that goes by many names and comes in many flavors. Some call it the “social death penalty.” It’s the feeling of being a pariah, of being shunned, ignored by the group, or given the silent treatment. It can mean anything from physical exile to subtle forms of psychological isolation. Whatever you call it, ostracism is a ghastly form of hurt.

You might think bullying is worse than ostracism, but recent research suggests that being frozen out is actually more painful. From social exclusion on the playground to being ignored in the workplace, ostracism is among the most devastating experiences we can endure, deeply connected to our most fundamental human need to be recognized and accepted. Ostracism can reshape the human brain, and in extreme cases, even make a person want to go on a killing spree. Isn’t it time we knew more about it?

The Ancient Roots of Ostracism

The modern word “ostracism” comes from an ancient Athenian political practice in which a person could be removed for 10 years if enough citizens expressed this desire through a vote cast on a pottery shard (ostrakon). Interestingly, ostracism was often used preemptively as a way neutralizing someone who might be a threat to the state. There was no trial, no jury and no defense. You simply had to pack your bags and get out of town. Political theorists have suggested that ostracism served to solidify group identity — clarifying what “we” are and what “we” are not. In the Athenian democracy, the rejection was often centered on a person, frequently powerful, with a tendency toward tyranny.

Throughout human history, ostracism has served this identity purpose and many others in communities and institutions, including the enforcement of conformity, punishment and control. In religious systems, those who are rejected are often excommunicated, an exclusion so profound it is sometimes considered eternal. Imprisonment, of course, is a form of ostracism, with solitary confinement being the most extreme example.

Ostracism often expresses group fear, either physical or spiritual. A person can be ostracized due to illness, physical difference, or even normal bodily functions considered threatening. Menstruating women have been considered threats and temporarily ostracized in many cultures. Ostracism has been a common strategy in dealing with those considered deviants or low-status by the group, and is inextricably linked to all forms of bigotry and prejudice. It manifests in activities as large-scale as apartheid and as understated as averting the gaze.

Why Ostracism Hurts

Human beings are social animals; the ability to interact with others is among our most basic requirements. For all mammals, social distance from the group is every bit as dangerous as hunger, thirst, or physical injury. In human societies, ostracism can mean death if the target is deemed outside the protection of the law or cut off from group support, including access to food.

Because ostracism can be so deadly, researchers think we have developed acute sensitivity to it. It can freak us out even more than being hit, ridiculed or yelled at, causing our bodies and minds to suffer exquisitely. Our need to belong is so strong that we experience psychological and physical effects right away. Neuroscientists have found that social rejection is experienced much like physical pain — connected to the same neural circuitry.

In the short-term, ostracism can create a bad mood or other forms of physiological arousal. If it goes on, it can cause low self-esteem, profound feelings of helplessness, self-imposed isolation, and suicidal thoughts.

Research collected in The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection, and Bullying shows the myriad ways ostracism can harm both the target and the community. The work of Lowell Gaernter and Jonathan Iuzzini suggests that people who perceive that they have been rejected or excluded by a group are more likely to harm multiple persons if they become violent.

Why is the pain so acute? When you are the object of a heated argument, you may feel angry, but at least you are interacting with someone. When you get the silent treatment, a common form of ostracism, you feel as if you don’t even exist. There’s no playing field on which to influence the relationship or situation — you may not even know the nature of the offense. The imposition of silence is a power play that expresses the ultimate contempt for the target: as George Bernard Shaw put it, “Silence is the most perfect expression of scorn.” The one giving the silent treatment — whether it’s not answering email, turning away in the middle of a conversation, or pretending not to hear a question — gets to feel control. In not explaining the cause, the perpetrator delivers particular pain. The message is loud and clear: “You do not matter.”

Another reason ostracism hurts so badly is that the hurt is not confined to the period when it happens. Researchers find that all you have to do is relive a past ostracism episode, or even imagine a future event, and you will feel psychological agony. So intense is the pain of ostracism that even being rejected from a despised group makes people upset. Observing ostracism distresses even bystanders.

The Young Brain in Pain

Children know all about ostracism. They know it so deeply that some of their most common games, like musical chairs, play out social exclusion. On the playground, the child considered the slowest, weakest, or different in some respect is marked for ostracism. Research suggests that children and adolescents may be impacted more negatively by ostracism than adults, with more extreme reactions.

The brains of adolescents who experience chronic ostracism may undergo telltale long-term changes, with normal development short-circuited. Through an online game called Cyberball, scientists have studied over 20,000 children to see how they are impacted by ostracism. Among the findings: ostracism adversely affects a young person’s cognitive ability. It can influence everything from food intake to hormonal systems, and it can induce symptoms ranging from paranoia to substance abuse.

Not only can ostracism damage the brain; it is also more commonly directed at those who have cognitive and psychiatric challenges. One study found that children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders were more likely to be ostracized when compared to children with other special needs or those without a diagnosis.

Chronic ostracism in young people can be dangerous: One well-known analysis of 15 U.S. school shootings from 1993-2001 suggests that ongoing exclusion was a major contributing factor in 87 percent of events. More recent tragedies show patterns linked to ostracism response, like that of alleged Isla Vista shooter Elliott Rodger. A common reaction to the perception of social rejection is trying desperately to forge new group identities, such as those available online. Rodger, who felt ignored and rejected particularly by female peers, sought to forge a new group identity through online “Men’s Rights” communities. When he finally snapped, Rodger followed the predicted pattern of violence in the ostracized in not wanting merely to harm himself or random people, but members of the group from which he felt excluded.

Ostracism in the Workplace

Adults experience plenty of ostracism, too, in romantic relationships, family life and on the job. Researchers have found that in the workplace, ostracism is more likely to make someone feel horrible and want to quit than more overt forms of abuse. Sandra Robinson of University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, who co-authored a recent paper on the subject, explained that adults may feel that ostracism is a more acceptable form of social control:

“We’ve been taught that ignoring someone is socially preferable—if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all…But ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless, like they’re not worthy of any attention at all.”

One of the things about ostracism in the workplace that makes it so hard to deal with is that it can be very subtle. Getting ignored in a meeting is hard to prove and respond to, but it can be psychologically devastating. In the hands of a petty and malicious boss, ostracism becomes a finely tuned instrument of torture, and one that can be implemented with little fear. There is an ambiguity to it: the targeted person wonders if it’s really happening, and since no one tells the target what may be wrong, the person can’t address the problem. The target feels humiliated and without recourse.

In the corporation, ostracism is often used to deal with the threat of whistleblowers. Unlike other forms of retaliation, like termination, demotion or a poor performance review, ostracism is difficult to document and probably won’t qualify for legal intervention. It is extremely effective because it prevents the target from being able to do his or her work properly, which can create grounds for retaliation that appear to be legitimate.

A Building Crisis?

Social psychologists and others who investigate the malicious ways people treat each other are finding that in fragmented modern societies, where superficial relationships prevail, victims of ostracism are particularly vulnerable.

Kipling Williams, a psychologist who researches ostracism, warns that people may not realize the emotional or physical harm that is being done when they ostracize others. He notes “in the past, people who were ostracized at work or by a friend could seek support and control through another significant relationship. But because people report growing more distant from extended family and relying on fewer close friendships, they might lack the support to deal with ostracism.”

Certainly, the evidence shows that ostracism should be considered a major concern for psychologists, educators, parents, and legal professionals.

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