Let me tell you a story. It takes place when I was in kindergarten, so picture me shorter, with jaunty green ribbons on the ends of my braids and bright red sandals (I was going through my Wizard of Oz phase). It was lunchtime, and emboldened by the sort of youthful enthusiasm that comes from eating four chocolate chip cookies within 2 minutes, I approached two of the popular kids in my class and asked if I could join their game. They were playing “trains,” a simple game that consisted of creating a conga line (the train) and chugging off around the playground. To my surprise, they said yes; all I had to do was wait at the “station” until they came to pick me up, and then we would all chug around the playground together. I nodded enthusiastically, green ribbons bobbing, and off went the train, leaving me to wait at the station.
I watched as the train picked up passengers from all over the playground, until it had collected enough children to qualify as an actual mass transit system. But it did not stop for me. And even now, I can still remember the dizzying array of emotions that flooded my little five-year old self as I watched that train weaving joyously around the playground: disbelief, injustice, humiliation, hope (when the train came toward me), despair (when it laughingly veered away from me), anger, sadness, hopelessness, pain, pain, pain. I waited at my station (i.e., Loserville) until the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch, and I dragged my little red shoes toward my classroom, trying very hard not to sob.
This was the first time I had been rejected by my peers, and it was so unexpected and so unjust that it left me inconsolable. Nothing made me feel better; not the commiserations of my family when I told them about the incident after school, or double helpings of chocolate ice-cream (the universal cure-all for five -year olds), or my childish schemes for vengeance (I’m Sicilian). Looking back, that episode created the first crack in my social invincibility armor; it is when I first realized that maybe I was not quite as universally loveable as I had previously thought (or as my parents had implied). It made me question everything — my value as a playmate, the motives of my classmates, and the pleasantness of train travel in general.
But what I find surprising is that, looking back on that episode, the feelings associated with the rejection are as fresh and raw as if it had occurred only yesterday. I know for a fact that other traumatic episodes took place during that same year — a particularly nasty fall off a tree in the back garden, the death of my beloved goldfish Mr. Fish (who committed suicide by jumping out of his tank and into the path of our voracious vacuum cleaner), my mother getting a very unflattering perm (it was the 80s) — but none of these memories, not even those involving physical pain, still incite such a visceral response in me over 30 years later.
This playground incident, coupled with similar incidents throughout my life, spurred my interest in ostracism — the act of being excluded and ignored. This interest skyrocketed during my PhD research when I had the opportunity to interview real world targets (i.e., those who are ostracized) and sources (i.e., ostracizers) of long-term ostracism in the community. These interviews opened my eyes to the fact that forms of ostracism, such as the silent treatment, were being used to devastating effect in homes, businesses, and schools around the world. The stories that these people shared with me were often extraordinary. Some were unexpected; for instance, one woman claimed that her husband had trained the dog to ostracize her and had wanted advice on how to get the dog’s attention back. (I recommended visiting a vet for training advice and, in the meantime, filling her pockets with bacon.) Other stories were simply heartbreaking. One young woman in high school was ignored by every single one of her classmates for several months. She found this widespread, unremitting ostracism so distressing that it led her to attempt suicide. Many targets reported experiencing ostracism episodes that lasted years, even decades, from their loved ones, primarily parents or spouses. These targets lamented that receiving the silent treatment from their loved ones meant that they dreaded going home at night — their homes were a place of ongoing distress and angst rather than a refuge from the outside world.
The insights that these interviews have provided, and the questions they have raised, have been at the center of all of my research to date. And although these interviews have provided almost unlimited research ideas, there are three avenues of research that I anticipate will hold my interest throughout my career as an ostracism researcher.
Ameliorating the Aversive Effects of Ostracism
During every interview with, or in every email that I receive from, targets of long-term ostracism, I am asked: How do you fix the aversive effects of ostracism? What can be done to make the pain go away? Unfortunately, most research to date has focused on uncovering the deleterious effects of being ostracized on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. There has been far less research on how to ameliorate these aversive effects. Developing strategies to ameliorate the aversive effects of ostracism is now the central focus of my research. It is a challenging research aim; in fact, many of the strategies we have tried (social and clinical) have had little impact on ameliorating the immediate effects of ostracism. However, there is promising evidence that the strategies we are investigating play a role in moderating the long-term effects of ostracism.
Given that the development of amelioration strategies will inevitably have a profound impact on both the field of ostracism and the community in general, this is an area that should be receiving far more attention from ostracism researchers.
Sources of Ostracism: The Other Half of the Puzzle
Another question that I am typically asked by targets of long-term ostracism is: “How do you stop an ostracism episode?” That is, once you are being ignored, is there any way of making the source pay attention to you once again? Unfortunately, this is yet another brilliant question that we can’t yet (fully) answer. One reason for this is that we know very little about sources of ostracism and the ways in which they ostracize others.
To date, ostracism researchers have been overwhelmingly focused on investigating the ostracism experience from the perspective of the target, which is understandable; they are the center of the episode, and we want to know how they feel (psychologically and physiologically) and how they behave as a consequence. And yet by focusing almost exclusively on targets, we are missing half of the ostracism puzzle. Who are the ostracizers? Why do they choose to ostracize rather than use other forms of interpersonal conflict? Are some people more likely to become ostracizers? What are the psychological and physiological costs and benefits of engaging in this kind of behavior toward others, both in the short and long term? What factors will lead them to curtail their ostracism episode?
Clearly, sources of ostracism warrant experimental investigation. However, inducing participants to ostracize others within a laboratory context is difficult to accomplish. Our lab is currently working on paradigms that will allow us to examine sources of ostracism, as well as developing measures that help us to uncover sources’ underlying personality traits. Ultimately, understanding the role of sources — their motives, their desires — may help us to determine both methods that can curtail ostracism episodes and better strategies to ameliorate the aversive effects of ostracism.
Paradigms: Bringing Ostracism From the Real World Into the Laboratory
Ultimately, the potential to investigate sources or amelioration strategies in the laboratory depends upon having paradigms that induce convincing ostracism episodes. One of my favorite aspects of research is devising paradigms, with the aim of creating ostracism situations in the laboratory that reflect the complexity of the ostracism experience in the real world. (The fact that one of the paradigms I helped to devise involves being ostracized during a train ride is completely coincidental. Completely coincidental.)
The most recent paradigm devised, in conjunction with Rani Goodacre, is “O-Cam” — a paradigm that allows participants to be ignored or included during a (pre-taped) web conference, thereby mimicking the silent treatment situations that are common in the real world. (For a demonstration of the paradigm, see www.psych.usyd.edu.au/research/ostracism/, username: guest; password: Bach).
We have also just finished a study comparing the effectiveness of the most popular ostracism paradigms. Researchers in the field often use ostracism paradigms interchangeably, even though they induce very different types of ostracism (e.g., exclusion during a task/game versus being ignored during a conversation). Our findings to date suggest that these paradigms lead to different psychological outcomes. This needs to be kept in mind when devising studies and making conclusions about the applicability of the findings.
Ultimately, the more paradigms we devise, particularly if they assess different aspects of ostracism or different ostracism experiences, the greater the opportunity of uncovering as much as possible about this powerful phenomenon.