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Why Being Left Out Hurts So Bad

via Reject

Purdue University Professor Kip William studies the effects of ostracism.

Everyone knows how much it can hurt to be left out, to be excluded from a playground game or not invited to a party.

But the hurt doesn’t end there. The movie Reject, being screened Thursday at the Cleveland International Film Festival, looks at the long-term consequences of social exclusion.

This week I talked with Purdue University Professor Kip Williams, whose research is featured in the film. Williams developed a simple computer game to explore the consequences of rejection.

Q: One of the experiments that you’ve done that’s highlighted in the movie is this game CyberBall. Can you describe the game?

A: CyberBall is an online virtual ball toss game. And we have participants typically college students but there’ve been kids as young as five or six who’ve been part of these studies all the way to people who are 85 years old.

Typically they’re playing this virtual ball toss game and they’re encouraged who visualize who people are, and where they are.

What they don’t realize is that some of them get the ball about an equal number of times to everybody else so they are included, whereas others only get the ball at the beginning once and then never again.

So what we’re wondering about is what is the impact of being ignored or excluded in this very very minimal experience.

We find that it activates pain centers in the brain. It makes them feel lower self-esteem and makes them feel less belonging with other people and it makes them feel less worthy of attention.

These have downstream behavioral outcomes as well. It makes them more likely to conform to other people even when those other people are clearly wrong. It makes them more likely to comply with a request to donate money. It makes them more likely to obey somebody’s command. So they do a number of things to get back into the good graces of others, to fit in more.

They’re also better able to detect emotional expressions in other people’s faces. They can tell a genuine smile from a non-genuine smile better if they’ve just been ostracized through CyberBall than if they had been included. And it has a number of other interesting effects. It actually makes them physically colder if they’ve been ostracized than if they’d been included.

Q: Can you actually make a connection from just this computer game on the screen to all those other effects out in the world?

A: Yup. It underestimates ostracism in the real world because first of all you don’t really care about these other people on the screen. And yet even then you experience pain. So if you did know these people if they were people who mattered to you and it did occur day in and day out it’s just going to be a larger effect. So I think what we’ve done is we’ve tried to make the effect as minimal as we can and we’re surprised at how strong the effect is even when the manipulation is so minimal.

Q: Have you played Cyberball?

A: More than you’d like to know.

Q: How does it make you feel?

A: At this point I makes me rather bored.

But when I first started doing this research and I would be playing it I could feel the effects even on me.

Or if I was doing a real ball-tossing experiment with real people and I told the people who were working with me not to throw the ball to me, I was always surprised that even though I just told them not to throw it to me, I was still feeling bad. That kind of gave me a clue that this was a pretty deep thing, that even though I told them to do it, it still makes me feel bad.


The film Reject will be screened Thursday at 4:15 p.m. and Friday at 2 p.m. at the Cleveland International Film Festival. The Thursday screening will be followed by a panel discussion including Williams and:

  • Ruth Thomas-Suh, Reject Director;
  • Bridget Rotman, Teacher at Ruffing Montessori School in Cleveland Heights; and
  • Pat Lyden, Executive Director & CEO of the Suicide Prevention Education Alliance.

Thomas-Suh appeared last month on WCPN’s talk show the Sound of Ideas along with a Solon teenager who launched his own effort to promote greater tolerance of others.

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