Experiencing ostracism — being deliberately ignored or
excluded — hurts, but ostracizing someone else could hurt just as much,
according to new research published in Psychological
Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Humans are social animals and they typically avoid causing
harm to others when they can. But past experiments — and real-life events —
suggest that people are willing to inflict harm in order to comply with
Graduate student Nicole Legate, along with her advisor,
Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester, and colleagues, hypothesised that
complying with these kinds of directives might have psychological costs for the
perpetrators. By causing harm to others, the perpetrators may be thwarting
their own basic psychological needs to feel in control and to feel connected to
How the research was
The researchers set up an experiment in which participants
were asked to play a computer ball-throwing game,Cyberball. The participants
were made to believe that the other two players in the game were real people
playing from a different room, but they were actually controlled by a computer
program that was designed to play a certain way.
In the first experiment, the ostracizer group of
participants was instructed not to throw the ball to a certain player, while
the compliance group was instructed to throw equally to both players. The
neutral group was simply asked to throw the ball to whomever they wanted.
Participants in the ostracizer condition reported worse
mood, which seemed to be the result of a diminished sense of independence and a
lack of connectedness with others, confirming the researchers’ initial
To compare the costs of ostracizing with those of being
ostracized, the researchers conducted a second experiment that included an
ostracized condition, in which participants rarely received the ball.
The experiment revealed that the costs of ostracizing other
people were comparable to those of experiencing ostracism as a victim — both
the ostracizer and ostracized groups reported experiencing more negative mood
than the control group.
What the study found
But the specific negative emotions experienced were
different for the two groups. Ostracized participants felt more anger, while
individuals who did the ostracizing experienced more shame, guilt, and
distress. These negative feelings seemed to be the result of a lower sense of
Even though the participants weren’t interacting with the
other players face to face, they still had strong emotional reactions,
suggesting that people are wired to feel distress when doing harm to others,
even when they are anonymous and unseen. “This speaks positively about human
nature!” notes Ryan.
The research has clear implications for contemporary issues
of peer rejection and bullying, showing that there are costs that come with
stigmatizing and rejecting others. And it may shed light on other types of
social and physical harm, such as compliance in inflicting harm within military
or police situations.
Ultimately, the research underscores humans’ fundamental
nature as social creatures.
“Our results highlight that it goes against the grain of
people’s psychological needs to exclude others,” says Ryan.
Ryan and his co-authors hope to expand on this research,
exploring the ways in which various factors — such as stigma, prejudice, and
justification — may change the dynamics of ostracism.
In addition to Legate and Ryan, co-authors on this research
include Cody R. DeHaan from the University of Rochester and Netta Weinstein
from the University of Essex.