Analysis: we can suffer from psychological and emotional hurt when ostracised by a person or group we were close to or part of

By Ian Tyndall, University of Chichester

Humans are social animals by nature. We feel stronger mentally and physically when we believe we belong and are accepted as part of a family, friendship network, tribe or larger cultural group. Much research is converging on the idea that loneliness is one of the largest predictors of ill health and early mortality, with seemingly comparable effects to well-established unhealthy behaviours like smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol, or sedentary lifestyles. The effects of loneliness during the multiple lockdowns imposed by various governments worldwide during the Covid-19 pandemic are still to be fully observed.

One specific cause of loneliness is ostracism ('social rejection') and is particularly hurtful psychologically and emotionally. This is when we feel or perceive we are socially excluded by a person whom you were formally close with or a group such as a family or work colleagues you felt part of an important part of.

There appears to be reasonable evolutionary accounts about why deliberate social exclusion hurts so much. In our ancestral hunter-gatherer past, we lived in small, closely knit nomadic tribes where co-operation and social inclusion were key. Being ostracised by your tribe - meaning that you were socially excluded and left to fend for yourself - greatly reduced your chances of survival. It seems that this is where our notion of ostracism as 'social death' comes from.

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While the consequences of ostracism might not be so immediately life-threatening in our modern world, the psychological effects can still be quite severe. One of the troubling issues with ostracism is that we are often unsure why we are being socially excluded. For example, it would hurt emotionally if you were the only one not invited to a family gathering, or if you were the only person in your work team who was not invited to a colleague's wedding, and you had no real idea why.

Not knowing the reason leads to a lot of rumination, over-thinking, and soul-searching, as we try and figure out what we did or must have done to deserve this silent treatment. It feels different to clear cases of exclusion due to discrimination, such as being excluded on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, or ethnic background. Such bigotry leads more to feelings of anger towards the bigot or prejudiced group rather than bewilderment and confusion.

There is a lot of debate over whether ostracism actually 'hurts’ in the same way that we feel physical pain. In other words, is ‘social pain’ the same as ‘physical pain’, in that is quite literally experienced as painful? While they might not ultimately be the same thing, there is considerable overlap in affective brain activation patterns and how they are experienced psychologically. Both social and physical pain can make us feel disconnected from others, lower our self-esteem and reduce our sense of control.

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Indeed, one theory of ostracism suggests we experience significant depletions in four core psychological needs when we are exposed to an ostracism event; namely belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence. When these psychological needs become depleted, we attempt to refortify them. Research has shown that we often use alternative ways to try and build back up our levels of self-esteem and control, such as an immediate increase in online shopping, turning to religion and consumption of tasty food treats.

The majority of people will recover quite quickly from an episode of ostracism, but repeated or chronic experiences can lead to severe psychological distress such as depression or heightened social anxiety, which might result in a further narrowing or restriction of social life and networks. We have conducted a number of studies examining factors that might help people cope with and recover from their ostracism. These include an interview with ostracised people in UK, where it was clear that memories of even a single ostracism episode were recalled with vivid emotional intensity years later; a sample of chronically ostracised homeless people on the streets of Milan in Italy; experiments with a simple computer game designed to induce feelings of ostracism and surveys of perceived ostracism over time.

The majority of us will recover quickly from an episode of ostracism, but repeated experiences can lead to severe psychological distress

In general, perceived ostracism is associated with increased psychological distress, such as depression, anxietyan dstress, and people often engage in avoidance of unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and feeling (i.e., experiential avoidance) resulting from the ostracism event. However, this emotional coping strategy might not be particularly effective in protecting our mental health and helping us recover from ostracism in the longer term. Ultimately, we aim to develop effective evidence-based strategies for helping people cope with experiences so that they do not lead to more serious psychological suffering in the long run.

Dr Ian Tyndall is a Reader in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Chichester.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ