By Emma Young
Imagine you are at a party with your partner and you are both talking to a stranger. Your partner and the stranger get along really well. Soon they’ll laugh away and ignore you. What would hurt the most: rejection from the stranger or from the partner?
The answer, according to new research in Social psychology is that – at least for now – they would hurt just as much. It seems that we have such a deep need for belonging that any form of ostracism elicits a similar level of immediate pain.
Anne Böckler from Leibniz University in Germany and colleagues asked the participants to come to the laboratory with either a same-sex girlfriend or a romantic partner (in this case the opposite sex). While in a separate room from their friend / partner, they played a screen-based ball toss game with their friend / partner and a third online player. In fact, that other “player” s passports, as well as the passports that the participant believed his friend / partner had made, were checked by the researchers.
Photos of the participant, his friend / partner and the third player (who was of the same gender as the friend / partner) were displayed on the screen next to individual symbols. By clicking various keys on the keyboard, the participant could choose who to pass the ball to. But how often they passed the ball themselves depended on the state of their experiment. “Trapped” participants received 20 of the 60 passes (as would happen if the ball throws were evenly distributed). Those who were “excluded from their friend / partner” were given a total of 10 passports, all from the stranger. Those who were “excluded from the stranger” also received a total of 10 passports, but all from their friend / partner. People in the fourth group were excluded more completely: after receiving two passes at the start of the game, they were then ignored.
Immediately after the game, the participants filled out questionnaires about their mood during and after the game. These showed that exclusion dampened people’s moods during (but not after) the game, regardless of whether they were excluded by a partner, friend, or stranger. Total exclusion had a greater impact on mood.
Fully inclusive participants also performed better than all others in terms of “belonging”, self-esteem, meaningful existence (a central reason for being) and general satisfaction of basic needs. Those who were completely excluded showed even lower basic needs satisfaction than the other groups, although total exclusion did not worsen the effects on self-esteem. “It is particularly important that when we compared exclusions from close people with exclusions from strangers, we did not find any significant differences for individual or general basic needs,” the researchers state. Relationship satisfaction scores were also lower when participants were excluded by a stranger, friend, or partner, and lowest among those who were completely excluded. So while the degree of exclusion clearly mattered, exclusion by a stranger, friend, or partner had the same effects.
However, this is a small study. And it focused on the impact during and immediately after the game. A rejection by a romantic partner or close friend would certainly have longer-lasting effects – albeit indirectly by changing the perception of the quality of the relationship itself. (I should note that the participants were all interviewed afterwards.) A larger study could also find effects on the behavior of the participants. In this paper, disqualification had no effect on who the participants passed the ball to – there was no evidence that disqualified participants tried to “groom and befriend” their deflector or stopped passing the ball to them.
Although this new study is one of the first to simultaneously compare the effects of ostracism by friends / partners with strangers, previous studies have found that even ostracism by a computer or someone belonging to a detested group like the Ku Klux Klan heard has negative effects.
All of these findings support the fundamental nature of the effects of ostracism on our well-being. Our ancestors’ lives depended on having strong social networks – and the urge to have and receive one apparently still lingers.
– Stranger, lover, friend ?: The pain of rejection does not depend on it
Emma Young (@EmmaELJunge) works at BPS Biomedarticles