From the outside, looking in

March 20, 2004

AS SNUBS go, it was a mild one. The young people having their brains monitored for research were told that they would be playing a virtual ball game with two computer figures that represented real people hidden in other rooms.

The games of catch started well. Then suddenly the two computer figures stopped throwing the balls to the human participants, and left them out of the action.

Trivial as this slight may have been, the reaction of the people being ignored was swift and strong. The bits of their brains which register physical pain lit up.

At last, what poets had been saying for centuries was scientific fact. Rejection really does hurt.

According to Professor Matthew Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger, two of the researchers who made this discovery late last year, the newfound link between social and physical pain makes sense of the way we describe emotions. "We can have a broken bone or a broken heart. We can feel the pain of a stomach ache or of heartache. We can be hurt by a dog's bite or by a biting remark."

Lieberman and Eisenberger, of the University of California, were among about 40 experts on social ostracism who gathered in Sydney this week to attend an international psychology conference titled "The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection and Bullying".

Humans are gregarious, social creatures. And during our evolution, exclusion of individuals from a group has threatened not only their health, but their very existence.

As Professor Roy Baumeister, of Florida State University, puts it: "With no fangs, no claws, no fur and a very extended childhood, human beings are not well suited to living alone in the forest. The need to belong is one of the most basic and powerful motives in the human psyche."

Lieberman and Eisenberger believe that as a result of this need, our brains have "co-opted' the same pain mechanism that evolved to warn us of a physical harm to also alert us to the dangers of social rejection, so we can quickly re-establish social bonds.

The conference co-organiser, Professor Kip Williams, of Macquarie University, says that in modern society prolonged rejection and social ostracism can lead to depression, suicide, association with anti-social fringe groups, and, occasionally, mass killings, such as the Columbine High massacre in the US in 1999.

It has such a detrimental effect because it deprives people of four basic needs, he says: a sense of belonging, control over their lives, self-esteem and a purpose for existence.

"For many tribes around the world, social ostracism is the most extreme form of punishment."

Everyone has to deal with being rejected at some point. Relationships break up. Friends shift allegiances. Partners give you the silent treatment. Williams says the opportunities for rejection are also becoming broader, with the availability of technologies such as the internet and SMS.

So why does it go so terribly wrong for some? Learning why people are more susceptible to social exclusion, or why some become aggressive while others withdraw, is important for how we run our schools, treat related mental illnesses and also try to prevent violence, says another conference organiser Professor Joe Forgas, of the University of NSW.

One of the surprising new findings in this area of research is that social ostracism does not make people behave differently because it causes emotional distress. Rather, it affects people's intelligence. But instead of making them sharper, so they can think up ways to get back into the group, it makes them less intelligent, Baumeister has found.

In experiments people were told their psychological profile made it likely they would spend most of their future alone. Immediately afterwards they performed poorly on tests of intelligence, memory and logical thinking.

They also were worse at reining in their naturally selfish inclinations, which we often have to do if we want to be socially accepted. They gave up easily on difficult tasks, couldn't concentrate well and gorged on fattening cookies.

Baumeister says this could send them on a "downward spiral", with repeated rejection diminishing their thinking and coping abilities, leading to more rejection. It also means romantic break-up should be considered a legitimate reason for students to get out of tests, he adds.

Even mild forms of social exclusion provoke aggression in most people, experiments have shown. People who have been told that no-one else in the group wanted to join them in an activity, for example, are much more likely to give a painful blast of noise to others or put lots of spicy sauce in their food.

Excluded people are more aggressive against anyone who happens to insult them when they are still stinging from the rejection. But even an innocent bystander will be dished out the bad treatment.

Not everyone who suffers prolonged rejection and social ostracism becomes a mass murderer, of course. But at the extreme end of the spectrum, 13 of the 15 recent killings in American schools were carried out by adolescent males who had experienced repeated social exclusion, an analysis has shown.

But how people react to rejection in the real world, rather than in the laboratory, depends on many factors.

Research shows some individuals are particularly sensitive to the threat of rejection, often because of cruelty or neglect by parents or a lack of acceptance by their peers when young.

Those who are angry about always expecting to be rejected, especially if they have a high opinion of themselves, tend to hit out at people. Those who are anxious about it tend to withdraw socially. The end result, say researchers, is that their worst fears of being rejected yet again are often realised.

Gender can come into play. Men tend to deny they've been snubbed, declaring they didn't want to join in anyway. Women tend to withdraw and become dejected by a slight.

People with high self-esteem try to negate a rejection by taking on challenging tasks or by working on their relationships. Those with low self-esteem tend to try to deflect attention from it by withdrawing from things they find difficult and distancing themselves from those who were close.

Professor Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University, says some of the latest findings are particularly relevant to children's playgroups. Rejected people, for example, are less likely to be aggressive against someone they expect to have to deal with again or they think belongs to a different group.

"Rejected children should not be grouped with other rejected children or with popular children. Both pairings are likely to lead to increased aggression," she says. As well, even a small social interaction, such as someone being friendly to a child or recalling a social tie, can prevent them being aggressive.

"This is encouraging news," she says. "After a child experiences rejection, parents can remind children of their other friends and the other people who love them."

She also recommends jilted lovers seek out their friends. "This advice is not as obvious as it might sound. Many people respond to rejection by spending more time alone. They believe that they need time to centre themselves or to think about what might have led to the rejection."

But research shows ruminating over a problem is more likely to lead to depression rather than insight, Twenge says.

Increasing numbers of people are living alone. And another study presented at the conference shows "social snacking" - just looking at photos, a letter or a memento of someone important - can help shield people from the pain of isolation.

More patience and sympathy are also needed, add Lieberman and Eisenberger. "We seem to have a double standard. Few would try to rush the healing of a broken leg, yet we often try to hurry others, and sometimes ourselves, through the healing of social pain."