(Medical Xpress) -- Humans need to belong. Yet they also commonly leave others out. Animals abandon the weakest to ensure the survival of the fittest. So do kindergartners and tweens, softball players and office workers.
Common though they are, rejection and exclusion hurt. Endured for a long time, ostracism leaves people feeling depressed and worthless, resigned to loneliness or desperate for attentionin extreme cases, suicidal or homicidal.
Yet ostracism was essentially ignored by social scientists for 100 years, says Purdue University psychologist Kipling D. Williams. His upcoming article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, begins to fill that void. The paper, co-authored by Steve A. Nida of The Citadel, offers important insights into what Williams calls a non-behavior, a slippery, invisible form of abuse.
Ostracism, says Williams, is experienced in three stages. In the first, immediate, stage, the rejected personthat means everybodyfeels pain. Williams research has found that it doesnt matter who youre being rejected by or how slight the slight appears. People playing a computerized ball-toss game feel the grief of exclusion when a cartoon figure ignores them. In the lab, African-Americans feel immediate pain when a Ku Klux Klan member leaves them out. An alarm has gone off in the brainthe same part that registers physical pain: Belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful recognition are under attack.
Next comes the coping stage, when people figure out how to improve their inclusionary status. They pay attention to every social cue; they cooperate, conform, and obey. If belonging is a lost cause, they look to regain control. In extreme cases, they may try to force people to pay attention. For instance, a 2003 analysis of school shootings found that 13 of the 15 perpetrators had been ostracized.
But coping requires psychological resources, says Williams. Endure ostracism too long and theyre depleted. You dont have it in you to cope, so you give up. You become depressed, helpless, and despairing. Even memories of long-ago rejection can bring up those feelings. This, psychologists have learned from interviews, is the third stage, resignation.
Williams is skeptical that ostracism can be eradicated. Its pretty ingrained, he says. If you tell kids its powerful, theyll use it. Although some people are seeking legal redress for ostracism as a form of workplace discrimination, its hard to document something that isnt happeningnot being asked to lunch, not being in the loopand easy to deny. The perpetrator can even turn around and accuse the accuser of paranoia.
Theres more hope, he thinks, in developing tools for both victims and therapists to deal with the effects of ostracism. Broader and deeper understanding can also give substance to this inaudible, invisible form of torment. Some people will say, Id rather be bullied. Then at least I could show my bruises to the police. More scholarly attention to the silent treatment, says Williams, can give people a voice.