We all know the feeling of not being picked for a team or workgroup, invited to a party, or even asked to join a conversation taking place among neighbors or co-workers. To the extent that we are all social beings, we like to be part of a group. To the extent that we like to be liked, it feels better to be invited than not invited when our friends, family, or co-workers are making plans.
With this in mind, consider a very simple and even almost silly social psychology experiment. You're playing an online game in which players pass a ball among themselves. The other virtual players and you are each getting a turn to throw the ball around. Slowly, though, you begin to realize that the other two players are pitching the ball only to themselves, and not to you. In fact, after about 10 or 12 passes, you're being completely ignored. If this were a situation in everyday life, and two people suddenly decided to treat you like you're invisible, you'd feel understandably miffed and confused. However, in this virtual game, you don't know the other players and, in fact, the entire situation is completely rigged to ignore you. To make it worse, you very well might suspect the game is rigged. Yet, you feel unhappy anyhow.
The game, called "Cyberball," is now a well-established online procedure with dozens of articles in which it's used as a manipulation. You can play the game yourself if you'd like to download it. If you'd rather simulate the game in real life, it's easy enough to do. Just get together with two other people, start tossing the ball around, and after a few trials, ignore the third person. Even though everyone knows it's a game, it's distressing anyhow.
In a recent study investigating EEG patterns among ostracized participants, Texas A&M researchers Carly Peterson and associates examined the reactions of undergraduate students to Cyberball while measuring their handgrip contractions. The participants thought they were playing Cyberball with other people when, in reality, they were not. In one condition, participants squeezed the ball with their right hands; in another, with their left. The researchers then correlated brain activity and the emotion experienced by participants with the hand they used to squeeze the ball. If they squeezed the ball with their right hand, they were more likely to show activation of their left frontal lobes corresponding to their perception of being angry. Conversely, if they squeezed their left hands, their right frontal lobes were more activated, and they were more likely to feel sad.
Our brains, then, react with anger or sadness when we're being threatened with exclusion, even if the exclusion is from strangers, and even if it is in a virtual world. If such a minor manipulation can produce such a brain meltdown, it's not a far stretch to see how badly we react to ostracism and rejection when the culprits are people we know. The situation is much harder for children or young teens whose identities, and defenses, are not as well-formed. However, no one seems completely immune to rejection.
There are many situations in life involving the type of rejection seen in the simple game of Cyberball. During the holidays, you can easily feel ignored when someone stops sending you greeting cards, presents, or invitations. You wonder what you did to deserve this treatment. Once angered or saddened by rejection, it's not a far leap for you to turn your anger or sadness against yourself or against the people who rejected you. Similarly, the distress you feel at being defriended on Facebook, even if you profess the opposite, is directly tied in with this sense of ostracism.
How can you avoid the uncomfortable feelings associated with rejection? At the same time, how can you avoid inadvertently ostracizing someone you don't mean to hurt? Here are five suggestions for helping your brain handle your own feelings and managing those of people you care about:
1. Recognize that not all ostracism is intentional. It may be hard to believe that people aren't forgetting about you on purpose, but sometimes they are. Invitations get lost in the mail, or the email. If someone you know who cares about you has dropped you from a holiday or guest list, shore up your courage and ask what happened.
2. Be gentle to those you decide to drop. We all experience times in life when we want to move on. However, to drop someone without an explanation or a softening of the blow isn't necessarily the kindest way to handle a former friend. "Breaking up over email" is considered one of the harshest ways to end things. Make a breakup a growing experience, if at all possible.
3. Distinguish between your own anger and your own sadness. Your left brain may feel anger but you shouldn't ignore your right brain's sadness. By sorting out your emotions, you'll save yourself unnecessary harm. You will only come to regret having acted out on your angry impulses rather than acknowledging your inner pain.
4. Be careful not to rub rejection in someone else's face. One of the great office or family dilemmas occurs when not everyone in a group can be invited to an event. You should be sensitive to the fact that you may be able to invite only a subset of co-workers, friends, or relatives to something you're planning, and therefore try to be discreet.
5. Try to move on after you've been rejected. If you've been the target of people not attending to #4 above, don't let it dominate your thinking. Use the opportunity to find friends who will be more sensitive and show better social graces. Once some time has gone by, you may be able to reflect on the experience and grow better self-understanding as a result.
Being rejected is never fun, but if we can learn from the experience, we can solidify our relationships with those who care about us, and deepen our identity in the process.
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Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.
Peterson, C.K., Gravens, L.C., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2010). Asymmetric frontal cortical activity and negative affective responses to ostracism. SCAN (2011). 6, 277-285.