Expert talks of the social pain of ostracism

Herald Staff Writer

The experiments were painful to watch.

Three people were put in a room and given a rubber ball to toss around. Two were research assistants at Purdue University; the third was the research subject, part of a rotating collection of college students who agreed to participate in a psychology study but weren’t told the full details of what the experiment entailed.

The research assistants picked up the ball and began to play catch. At first, they threw the ball to the research subject. But then, suddenly, the third person was excluded.

Time after time, the subjects became angry or sad when they weren’t thrown the ball. Kip Williams, a Purdue University psychology professor, studied their reactions from behind a one-way mirror. Some were heart-wrenching, he said.

“When you are ostracized, you actually feel pain,” Williams told a group of health care professionals, teachers, caregivers and youth workers who gathered Wednesday at Vincennes University Jasper Campus for “All In: Building a Positive Community,” a program sponsored by the Purdue University Extension Service.

“You can think of somebody I’m sure that you think, ”˜This wouldn’t bother them,’” Williams said. “But we haven’t found that person yet. If you’re an extrovert, an introvert, if you have a secure attachment style, an insecure attachment style ... it doesn’t matter. It hurts you.”

Wednesday’s presentation was the first in a three-part series that organizers hope will spark a community discussion on social rejection.

“It’s a big topic,” said Kendall Martin, a Purdue University extension coordinator. “It’s not something easy to approach.”

Williams said ostracism is innate. Children do it on the playground without being taught. But the practice isn’t limited to people. Ostracism is often observed in the wild. Animals that are outcast must hunt for themselves. They usually fall prey to predators and die within weeks or even days.

“It’s built in our system that this is life-threatening,” Williams said, “so we are very sensitive to picking up on it.”

If something is practiced everywhere in the world, not only by humans but by animals, there must be a good reason for it. Ostracism strengthens the group.

When a member is cast out, the circle becomes slightly smaller, but the burden of pulling someone else’s weight is lifted. In some cases, ostracism is used as a corrective tool. Studies show that people who are shunned are more likely to conform, comply or obey.

“All these things,” Williams said, “make you be liked more.”

But if someone is continually ostracized, it has the opposite effect. Over time, outcasts come to think they’ll never be re-included, so they lash out.

“You have people who have been school shooters or serial killers say things like, ”˜How many do I have to kill before I get some national attention?’” Williams said. “He’s not trying to be liked. He’s trying to be noticed.”

People often confuse ostracism with bullying, but there’s a distinction.

“At least when you’re bullied, you know that people know you’re there,” Williams said. “When you’re ostracized, you feel invisible and unworthy of attention at all.”

The “All In” series continues at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at VUJC. “Reject,” a documentary film that looks at the science of social rejection, will be shown at the Center for Technology, Innovation and Manufacturing. There is no charge.

The series concludes Wednesday, April 9, with a community forum on how Dubois County can be more socially inclusive. The forum begins at 7:30 p.m. in the CTIM. The public is welcome to attend.

“I doubt that we’re going be able to stop it completely,” Williams said of ostracism. “Animals do it, everybody does it, so it’s probably going to persist.”

But through education programs like the “All In” series, the community will be less likely to ostracize, he said. “You’ll think twice before doing it.”

Contact Tony Raap at

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