All in the Mind

27 March 2004
Ostracism: The Cruel Power of Silence (Part 2 of 2)

Kirsten Sommer: It comes in many forms, spousal rejection, unrequited love, peer rejection, co-worker rejection, there are many different facets. People just saying to you, "I don't want to be your friend, I don't want to be your lover. I don't like you!" And then there's sort of the more subjective aspect which involves people's perceptions of rejection and how readily they perceive rejection and even very ambiguous events. In the work that I've done with Kip Williams on ostracism shows that a lot of times people don't think that they're rejecting somebody that, for example, you might be in a conversation with somebody and sort of temporarily ignoring somebody but you're not really thinking it's having an impact on them, whereby that person is feeling terrible.

Natasha Mitchell: And hello Natasha Mitchell joining you for All in the Mind, great to have your company today. And this week I've got for you Part 2 in our exploration of the cruel power of silence, the ghastly experience that is social ostracism and rejection.

Woman: I've experienced it because I come from a Greek background and as I was growing up in school I was always kind of a bit of an outsider, tried to fit in. When I went to school my name being Anastasia my Dad changed my name to Susan because he thought it sounded more Anglo. In that way I always felt like a bit of an outsider yeah. Cultural things, my mother would come to school and she'd be speaking to me in Greek and I'd be totally embarrassed and you know, "go away", and stuff like that. Yeah, well I grew up in Blacktown so you know there was no Greeks and yeah, it's hard.

Julie Fitness: There was a nice example actually again from Sydney that somebody told me about a while ago of a young man who married against his parents wishes to a young woman of different ethnic religious background and on his wedding day his parents presented him with a bill for his upbringing. And the notion was that 'you're no longer a family member so this is what it costs us to raise you, so this relationship is now purely a business one so pay the bill and on your way'.

Natasha Mitchell: The ultimate rejection, do you know what unfolded?

Julie Fitness: No, but I know that there was a feeling of betrayal on both sides. So the parents felt betrayed because their son had said 'I don't value what you value, this is what I want to do'. But of course the son felt betrayed because parents aren't meant to do that, they're meant to be there for you whatever your decision in life is. So you've got mutual expectations disconfirmed, feelings of betrayal on both sides and you can imagine a scenario where a family might be split and never contact each other for years.

Natasha Mitchell: Social psychologist Dr Julie Fitness from Macquarie University and she was one of the participants this month at an engrossing workshop on the Social Outcast – which brought together some of the world's leading researchers in the field, hosted by Macquarie and the University of NSW.

Well I was included in the event, not ostracised, and this week on the show new evidence from neuroscience for why it quite literally ‘hurts' to be left out and also the simple power of a ‘social snack' to stave of social isolation.

As we established last week being ostracised can spell bad news for our health - long term loneliness has been linked to increased cardiovascular risk, poor sleep and compromised immunity. And now new research suggests that the emotional pain we suffer after rejection is linked to the experience of physical pain in the brain.

Naomi Eisenberger: Well I think people talk about 'feeling hurt' or they have a 'broken heart' and the words that we use to describe these experiences are very painful words. One of the things that people seem to really like about our neuroimaging study was it showed the same neural region that's being activated to social rejection is also involved in physical pain. So I think it sort of validated people's instincts about the fact that being rejected really does hurt.

Natasha Mitchell: Naomi Eisenberger's unusual work is giving a physical basis to the metaphors we use all the time to describe the social pain of being rejected. She's doing a PhD at the University of California, Los Angles looking at the neural correlates of social rejection - that is what's happening in the neural networks of our brain when we experience ostracism.

Naomi Eisenberger: We ultimately wanted to see how similar neural activity looks when people are being socially rejected to when they're experiencing physical pain. So do we see the same parts of the brain activated when people are being socially hurt that we see when they're being physically hurt?

Natasha Mitchell: Physical pain is something that we all...we find it hard to describe but we know what it is, something hurts physically but social pain is a little less tangible isn't it? So what do you mean by social pain?

Naomi Eisenberger: With physical pain there's sort of two components of it. There's the part of physical pain sort of tells you where on your body the pain's coming from and how intense it is and the other part of pain, the sort of distressing part of pain, is the part of pain that really bothers us, you know we can't stop thinking about it, we need to do something about it and I think this is the part of pain that is really very similar to the way we feel following rejection. You know, we're distressed by it, we're bothered by it, we feel like there's something we need to do about it.

Natasha Mitchell: So you actually set about rejecting people and scanning their brains at the same time. How did you go about that? It's kind of bizarre combination but there you have it....

Naomi Eisenberger: Our collaborator Kip Williams had a nice paradigm where you tell people that they're playing a ball tossing game over the Internet with two other people who are also on fMRI scanners and so they think they are just playing this simple game with two other people. And what happens is at a certain point in time these two individuals stop throwing the ball to the participant. Kip has shown that this kind of exclusion episode makes people feel really bad and so we could so this in a scanner by just having people look at a computer image of two other individuals and have them toss a ball back and forth.

Natasha Mitchell: And you scanned their brains, what areas of interest did you zero in on during this experience of a sort of cyber social rejection?

Naomi Eisenberger: There are two main areas that we looked at. The first was the anterior cingular cortex, which typically is involved in studies of physical pain. When people are feeling distressed by physical pain, that's the area that shows up. So that was the main thing that we were looking for. The other is an area called the right ventral prefrontal cortex which is really involved in regulating, or sort of, in coping with the distress that people feel when they're either experiencing physical pain or, in our study, experiencing social pain.

Natasha Mitchell: So you zeroed in, let's take the anterior cingular cortex. Just remind us where in the brain that it is again.

Naomi Eisenberger: So the anterior cingulate is sort of in the middle of the brain I guess if you were to drill a hole into the middle of your forehead that's about where it would be and kind of is like a mohawk that goes over the head and the anterior part is sort of the part that's closest to your forehead, and that's basically where it is.

Natasha Mitchell: So when you socially rejected people in the scanner what did you see, what were the major observations you made?

Naomi Eisenberger: Well we found that we did see this area of the anterior singular activated when they were being excluded and we found that the more activity people had in this area, the more socially distressed they reported feeling after the scan. And I guess, it's always surprising to me when studies work, so in some ways it was surprising but there's also a number of animal studies showing that if you take out this part of the brain that is associated with both kinds of pain that baby animals don't get upset any more when their mothers walk away, mothers don't respond when their pups are crying any more...

Natasha Mitchell: Because actually that part of the brain lights up, or is activated, in say mothers whose pups are crying.

Naomi Eisenberger: Exactly, so you see the same part of the brain activated. Sort of like when mothers are experiencing the pain of their children, when they see that their children are crying you see the same part of the brain activated.

Natasha Mitchell: Well the thing is though that we don't necessarily think that social pain is of the same 'type' if you like, as physical pain. Intuitively we separate those.

Naomi Eisenberger: I think so and in some ways I think we can still separate them so the common denominator is this affective component, this part of pain that really bothers us. Now there may be very different parts involved in the sensory components so when we experience physical pain we get the somatosensory cortex part of the brain lit up to sort of tell us 'well where on this body is this pain located' and with social pain you don't see that.

Natasha Mitchell: How would you describe this relationship given that there is some sort of correlation here between social pain and physical pain in our brains. Where does that come from do you think?

Naomi Eisenberger: The way that we like to talk about it is that because we have sort of a long period of immaturity as mammals and we can't take care of ourselves, we need a care giver to make sure that we are protected and to make sure that we're getting the proper nourishment. That this kind of social connection is so important that the system that makes sure we're connected actually piggy-backed onto the physical pain system. So we're sort of borrowing, if you will, this pain signal to make sure that we never move too far away from our close others. So we actually feel pain when we're separated from them to make sure we don't get separated from them.

Natasha Mitchell: So this drive in a sense to not be socially excluded that is, as some people suggest, innate within us is in a sense hardwired into our brains?

Naomi Eisenberger: Yeah I think it is. I mean it seems extremely primitive you can get people experiencing social pain even when they know the rejection doesn't matter. It seems extremely hard wired, just as hard wired as we think physical pain is.

Natasha Mitchell: Do you think that this sort of observation and we have to be wary about what we take from brain scan studies. You know it's easy to say "ahaaa, there's a link" but why wouldn't there be a link. But do you think that this in a sense gives more validation to social pain, the sort of validation that's given to the visceral and very public display that comes with physical pain?

Naomi Eisenberger: I think it does and I mean I think this is why a lot of people seem to resonate with the study. It sort of gave people validation that when they're socially rejected they know it hurts but it's almost like people don't want to believe that and so it's sort of validated that you know there is really pain there when you're being rejected. I think in our society you know we make sure that kids don't go around beating each other up but we don't care as much if they you know reject each other. We want people to sort of move on if they get rejected but you would never tell someone who had a broken leg to you know hurry up and get over your broken leg. So I think that studies like this do validate that there is this real kind of hurt feeling going on.

Natasha Mitchell: I wonder if this means that the analgesics we take for physical pain might just work for social pain too? Interesting possibilities there...

And that was Naomi Eisenberger from the University of California in Los Angeles. On ABC Radio National you're tuned to All in the Mind with me Natasha Mitchell and a hello to our international audience online and on Radio Australia too. Today, bearing the brunt of social ostracism.

Song: A Friend is a Four Letter Word by "Cake"

Man (vox pop with pub sounds in the background): Yeah, well its been a belief from my own reflections on my own life that if you're alienated and you've faded from a group you usually have created that space for yourself by alienating people and shutting down yourself. And that's both at an individual level, but also as a son of a Jew I'm interested in ethnic minorities complaining about being ostracised and persecuted but create as much of that dialogue of persecution which is basically a discourse of persecution, they play half the role themselves. And I think individuals do the same thing. So if you're feeling ostracised it's because you think of yourself as different. Probably something that happened when you're a kid you go you know something happened then you decided you were going to be different and you then replicate that in other situations the rest of your life going I'm a different person and everyone treats me differently.

Natasha Mitchell: Do you think that is the case because often people are irrationally cruel to each other. Think of the situation at the school for example when bullies, kids who receive bullying are almost innocents often.

Man: Absolutely but there's the old saying, I think it might be Chinese, which is "no one humiliates you, you have to be humiliated, you have to choose to be humiliated". And it's quite tough and for kids it's different because you're not quite as prepared for the world. But if you feel humiliated or ostracised by someone as an adult you are choosing to be humiliated and ostracised.

Natasha Mitchell: Yes, well harsh words in anyone's book, what do you think? Well whether or not we're to blame when we're pushed out of the clan, classroom or workplace, if you've experienced social rejection and you're feeling ghastly, how do you cope?

Research in social psychology suggests many of us respond with aggression, but not all of us. And this is the focus of Associate Professor Kristen Sommer's research at the City University of New York.

Kirsten Sommer: Well whether or not we do cope in the first place, you know how well do we cope? What are the different coping mechanisms that are out there, again do we sort of withdraw and you know crawl into our as an analogy like the foetal position in trying to just kind of protect ourselves from our environment to avoid feeling rejected, withdraw from social situations. Or do we you know go out there and take a very pro-active sort of assertive approach and say "no, the implication of being rejected is that I'm not worthy of your regard and I don't accept that, I don't think that you're evaluation of me is accurate or appropriate and so I'm going to show you how good I am, I'm going to prove to you that I'm really worthy of acceptance" and to kind of overcome that initial obstacle of feeling like that you're not being accepted. And so part of what I'm interested in is way determines which direction you go.

Natasha Mitchell: Now your suggestion is that self esteem can play an important role here and there's been plenty of debates of late about the status of self esteem. Is it over rated, do we over value it, but nevertheless, self esteem, you consider from your work does play a role in how we cope.

Kirsten Sommer: Yes, I think it does and you're right there has been some mixed evidence for when self esteem determines our reactions to rejection. Sometimes it doesn't, sometimes we don't get self esteem differences in how people respond, but a lot of times we do and it tends to depend on what the measure, what the behaviour is.

Some of the research that I have done when we prime people with rejection that is we sort of subliminally flash them rejection in words compared to may be more acceptance related words. And then we put them on a performance task, something that is actually a difficult unsolvable task and we have them work on it. We tell them work on it as long as you want. What we find is that following an acceptance prime or maybe even some kind of a negative prime that has nothing to do with rejection that 'trait self esteem' doesn't have any influence on how hard people work, how much they persist on difficult tasks. But when you prime them with rejection you get a huge difference in how people respond. What happens is that the people who are low in self esteem just give up, these primes are occurring very unconsciously, it's not like people even are not actually being rejected, they're not necessarily consciously thinking about rejection but it's been somehow primed in their subconscious. But just that kind of manipulation leaves people who are lower in self- esteem to just give up much more quickly. They respond with task withdrawal, they give up, they don't work as hard on tasks whereas people with high self esteem show a doubling of performance. They work really hard, they persist on difficult task for a long time and they actually perform better.

Natasha Mitchell: In a sense they rise to the challenge and they go well, "bother that, I'm going to go for it".

Kirsten Sommer: Exactly, they try to overcome this, they seem to possess the resources, if you will, to overcome the suggestion that you know someone somewhere might have been rejected. Again that prime leads them to become very focussed on what they're working on and to try really hard to do well and to say that they're trying to do well to over ride a sense of rejection might be extrapolating too much from the research; because again this is occurring very subconsciously or unconsciously. But you know it is a suggestive of how people who vary in self esteem cope with the rejection experience. People who are high can rise to the challenge, they really try to prove themselves to show how worthy they are because you know people who are high in self esteem think they're worthy and they don't accept the possibility of rejection, they don't see it as being a valid indication of who they are and what they're worth.

Natasha Mitchell: Kristen Sommer thank you very much for joining me.

Kirsten Sommer: You're absolutely welcome, thank you very much for having me.

Natasha Mitchell: Kirsten Sommer from the City University of New York.

Well here's a novel approach to coping with isolation or ostracism, have a quick snack.

Last week we heard that thinking about a loved one can prevent us from responding aggressively in the moment when we're ostracised. And Associate Professor Wendi Gardner from Northwestern University in Illinois believes this sort of social snacking as she calls it is crucial in our daily lives if we're to feel like we belong.

(Question) Where do you think belonging fits, if we think of all our social needs as something of hierarchy, where do you think belonging fits in that hierarchy?

Wendi Gardner: Well I actually is the dominant need after basic survival needs so if you think back to Malsow's classic hierarchy of needs, he placed belonging right after safety and shelter and food and water. So, belonging really forms the basis of all of our social motives, it's more important than self esteem and self enhancement, it's more important than self actualisation.

Natasha Mitchell: Well you're specifically interested too, in looking at how people cope with rejection because rejection is an ubiquitous experience is it not?

Wendi Gardner: Absolutely. And not just rejection but there's times throughout the day that we want to be socially connected and we can't. Sometimes it's because we're rejected, sometimes it's because we are really busy. I mean if you think about how often in a typical day you can actually have a deep, meaningful connection with another person, it's pretty rare and so one of the things I became interested in is, is how do people maintain a sense of connection and belonging given how important is throughout the day.

And so, we've always thought about kind of the best metaphor for belonging is hunger, and when people talk about people who are starving for acceptance, and so just like when we can't get a real meal, we'll settle for snack, we thought well have to be things that serve as social snacks. And so we started looking at things like tangible reminders of our social bonds - whether it's your wedding band, or a photo of a close friend or family member on your desk and we all seem to carry these symbolic reminders of our attachments. Americans, 85% of Americans actually keep a photo of a loved one on their desk or in their wallet so it seems like they really do rely on these reminders throughout the day.

Natasha Mitchell: Now photos are an interesting one, you've contemplated the immense social power of photos in our lives, what is the social power of a photo for us?

Wendi Gardner: There's a really interesting data set by another researcher Kanazawa, and he has this whole theory, he argues evolutionarily we weren't built to view photographs, we weren't built to view people in movies we were built to view and interact with people. And so our more primitive brain may still be processing these photos, these images as actual others and so I think there is something very powerful about having an image of a close other that reminds you of your connection with them.

Natasha Mitchell: Well you've actually tried to test this experimentally, what did you do with photos and people to try and work out how they 'socially snack', if you like, after they've been rejected?

Wendi Gardner: At first we just looked at preferences for symbolically social versus non-social behaviour and found that in fact when people are lonely or when they've been working on a solitary project for eight hours that they definitely prefer the symbolically social behaviours to matched behaviours. So for example, you might prefer to re-read email from a friend, versus surfing the lab, and you don't see these preferences for socially symbolic behaviours when they've had an acceptance experience. But more experimentally we actually had people bring in photographs of either a loved one or a liked celebrity, someone that they like, they know, but they clearly don't have a connection to. And then we threatened them, in some ways we had them either relive a rejection experience or relive a failure experience. And we took things like mood and self esteem.

And what we found is that for the failure experience it didn't matter, people just felt bad whether they had a photo of a celebrity or a friend. But for the rejection experience which is where we thought the photo of the friend should serve in some ways as a social snack as this reminder of one's social bonds, basically the people who had the photo of their friend, were buffered, they were protected, they didn't show these negative consequences in terms of mood or self esteem.

Natasha Mitchell: So for those who had a celebrity, what happened to their mood or self esteem after they were rejected and just remind us how you rejected them by the way? It's social psychologists working in ostracism rejecting people experimentally – but how did you do it?

Wendi Gardner: In this particular instance we picked perhaps a less sadistic manner than some of our other studies. In this one we just had them relive a rejection, we told them we wanted them to recall as vividly as possible a time in which they'd been rejected by either a close other or a group.

In other studies though we've used perhaps more sadistic methods I suppose or we've had them left out of a chat room, or left out of a ball toss game, or been told that people don't like them - just much more rejecting experiences. But in all of these cases kind of regardless of where the rejection comes from, what we find is that when people do have these social snacks to fall back on, they are protected from the negative consequences. Normally what you see is when people are left out of a ball game for example, you see huge declines in mood, not surprisingly they feel bad, and declines in self esteem, they feel worse about themselves. People also have a tendency to do really poorly on cognitive tasks. And we found that for people who have social snacks available this doesn't happen.

And it doesn't have to be a tangible reminder I mean think that's important as well. We don't have to have a photograph with us all of us do have relationships and group memberships and we can just call them up to protect ourselves as well.

Natasha Mitchell: So by calling up, you're actually referring there to sort of internal protective mechanisms that we have to better cope with the rejection experience. What sort of mechanisms, I mean in what way do we call up a previously affirming social experience at a time like that?

Wendi Gardner: Well, I've studied some people who have what's called an "interdependent self concept". Now actually all of us have both independent and interdependent self concept. If I asked you to describe yourself for example, I'm sure you could give me some personality traits and abilities and preferences, things that make you unique and those would be considered independent self characteristics. But you could also probably describe the roles and relationships, you're maybe a wife or a mother, or membership in groups and these too are self definitions but they're definitions that connect you, fundamentally, with other people. And so what we found is that people who have these inner-dependent self concepts accessible, either they're reminded of them or they're accessible because they're just chronically that way as an individual difference - these people are protected from rejection both the cognitive and their self esteem drops.

Natasha Mitchell: So if you don't have those sorts of inner resources to draw upon what happens to you?

Wendi Gardner: That's a really interesting question. One of the things I've been interested in is what my lab calls the “belonging strategy of last resort” and that's the notion that the need to belong is so powerful, we need to feel attached to something or someone so much that sometimes what you'll see is people forming what are called para-social relationships. In some ways it's like imaginary friendships, people who are attaching or connecting with someone or something that can't connect back with them.

You might see people becoming really attached to their house plants for example. A good friend of mine did that when she was very lonely, or you can see people attaching themselves to celebrities. In some ways the fact that I used this celebrity contrast could have almost hurt me because we've discovered there's this relatively small group of people who when they need to belong seem to attach themselves very strongly to imaginary relationships with the celebrities on television. And importantly, actually it's not the celebrities themselves they're attached to it's the characters. For example I used to be a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and I would say to anyone "I really like that show, it's a great show". I was interested in the show, that's different from para-social attachment. People who score high in para-social attachment say things like "Buffy keeps me company" or "I feel comforted by the sound of Buffy's voice in my house". I mean these are people who really connect with the character in a relationship type way, that obviously is non-reciprocal but may have some protective benefits.

Natasha Mitchell: That's extraordinary, I mean that's suggesting that we don't need the physical proximity of others to feel like we're socially connected. The television might provide that for us.

Wendi Gardner: Yeah, I mean one of the crazier theories out there that I referred to before about how evolutionarily we're not meant to understand that the people in the boxes in TV aren't real people, is that perhaps one of the reasons so many of us live alone now is that maybe we can right, because we can get social interaction, we can just turn on the television. Whether or not that's healthy is a completely different question just like snacks are no substitute for meals when you're talking nutritionally, I think that's true socially as well.

Natasha Mitchell: You use the analogy of the desert island and for those who have seen Tom Hanks in Castaway where he ends up on a desert island and you know whatever we think of Tom Hanks it's actually quite a powerful performance because he ends up having this incredible intimate relationship with a soccer ball with a face etched onto it, and he's devastated when the ball floats away, it's like his whole social world has come to an end.

Wendi Gardner: Yeah, and I think that's actually one of the most poignant moments in that entire movie is when he's forced to choose actually between saving his own life and saving Wilson, his soccer ball. And you can tell for him it's an incredibly difficult decision. And yeah, I think that shows the power of attachment that we need to attach to others, they don't have to attach back to us. And one worry with para-social relationships is that potentially these are the most socially vulnerable, these are the loneliest people in the population, they maybe the most social insecure, socially phobic. And to the extent that these relationships are a crutch that allow them not to form true real relationships it could be problematic.

Natasha Mitchell: Wendy Gardner thanks for joining me on the program this week.

Wendi Gardner: Thank you.

Natasha Mitchell: Associate Professor Wendi Gardner from Northwestern University and it's a nice idea that one, social snacking, simple but powerful I reckon.

You'll find the audio and transcripts for this two part special on ostracism on the All in the Mind website which of course is at that's the Radio National website and then click on All in the Mind under the programs menu. And there you'll find our email address there too and heaps of links. My thanks go today to Sue Clark and Jenny Parsonage for production, I'm Natasha Mitchell and I look forward to your company next week, same time, same place. Meanwhile take care.

Guests on this program:

Dr Julie Fitness
Social psychologist
Department of Psychology
Macquarie University
Naomi Eisenberger
NSF Predoctoral Trainee & Graduate Student (2004)
Universityof California, Los Angeles
Kristin L. Sommer
Associate Professor
Department of Psychology
Weissman School of Arts and Sciences
Baruch College
The City University of NEw YOrk
Wendi Gardner
Associate Professor
Department of Psychology
Northwestern University
Evanston, Illinois

More information:
7th Annual Sydney Symposium on Social Psychology (2004)
The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection, & Bullying
Includes full papers presented by the key participants.
Part 1 of this two part All in the Mind special.

Ostracism: The Power of Silence
Author: Kipling D. Williams
Publisher: Guilford Publications, August 2002 (paperback)
ISBN 1-57230-831-1

Presenter: Natasha Mitchell
Producer: Natasha Mitchell/Susan Clark

© 2004 Australian Broadcasting Corporation
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