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What Can We Do About Feeling Excluded?

If the relationships are vital to you, there are ways back in.

Key points

  • Ostracism is a common experience, but one that may have surprising causes.
  • A new study contrasts motives for ostracism and shows who’s most likely to be the target.
  • By understanding ostracism’s causes, you can bring back into your life the relationships you value most.
Aleshyn Andrei/Shutterstock
Source: Aleshyn Andrei/Shutterstock

Given that relationships are key to a reasonably satisfying existence, most people would rather be invited to join a group than be left out in the cold. Perhaps you have a friend whose partner you also consider to be a friend. The two of them are having a quiet conversation while you sit in their backyard, but well within earshot. When a question pops up, you instinctively provide an answer. Much to your chagrin, your contribution is met with two identical dirty looks. They go back to their conversation, clearly preferring that you stay out of it.

Such a seemingly minor rupture in an otherwise good relationship needn’t develop into anything more than a one-off. Maybe one or both of them was in a bad mood, and their uncharacteristic rudeness doesn’t mean a thing. However, maybe it makes you wonder whether you can be a bit too intrusive in your dealings with them or other people, for that matter. Either way, it doesn’t feel very good.

Ostracism’s Three Causes

According to the University of Basel’s Selma Rudert and colleagues (2023), although it’s clear from “a plethora of research” (p. 2) that ostracism has negative effects on the target, less is known about what leads to the behavior in the first place, or “motivated ostracism.”

One possible set of motives is based on the concept of “perceived norm violation.” Groups ostracize those they believe aren’t following the rules of the game. Your friends, for example, may view your uninvited opinion as violating the social norm of privacy. Even though their conversation wasn’t exactly “private,” (since you were present) you weren’t asked directly to answer their question.

The second set of ostracism motives relates to “perceived expendability” and refers to the fact that group members need to contribute their fair share to maintain the group’s ability to function at a high level. Unlike the case with your friends, this type of ostracism would occur when someone in a group doesn’t seem to have the ability to add anything worthwhile.

Everyone can relate to the situation in which a group project becomes slowed down by the inclusion of people who lack skills and are therefore seen by everyone else as “irrelevant, expendable, or even impedimental for goal attainment” (p. 3).

Think about the last time you were involved in a group effort, perhaps via an online interactive platform such as Zoom. All of a sudden, one member’s face starts to freeze as their Internet connection becomes “unstable.” Try as you might not to blame the person, even when they return back into the meeting, no one seems to pay attention to them.

Apart from these motivated, or situational, forms of ostracism, a third type occurs when group members perceive the target as having a “stigma,” so this is known as the “stigmatized account.” In the words of the authors, “Any shortcoming of the target, regardless of its relevance in a particular context, might signal that the target is a suboptimal exchange partner and thus, better to be avoided” (p. 4).

Putting Ostracism’s Causes to the Test

Across a series of seven both survey and experimental studies (with a total of nearly 2,400 participants), the Swiss research team contrasted these three approaches to understanding ostracism from the point of view of both targets and perpetrators. As an example, in one study, norm violations were manipulated by giving participants instructions to complete a task (“Survey on Teamwork”) as cooperatively as possible. The target in this condition came up with comments such as, “I don’t care who’s in the group. When does the damn task start?”

In the expendability condition within this study, participants received instructions to complete the task as well as possible without regard for cooperation. The target in this condition proclaimed, “I hope the task is not too difficult. I am really bad with math.”

To examine the role of stigmatized ostracism, the authors also set up a condition in which the target individual stated that they lack the ability to perform not the task at hand (e.g., math) but a completely different type of task (e.g., reading English). If this target was ostracized, it would mean ability on the particular task didn’t matter. Just seeming inept would make you a potential target of exclusion.

In summing up the findings across all seven studies, the U. Basel authors concluded that strategic ostracism appears to be a more powerful set of motives than stigmatic: “This indicates ostracism might represent a strategic regulation mechanism by which groups can ensure that their members are suitable for the respective requirements of the specific situational context” (p. 18).

Despite the weight of evidence supporting the strategic account, this didn’t rule out completely the role of stigmatization. “Any shortcoming,” they noted, is enough to trigger at least some degree of ostracism even if it isn’t completely relevant to the situation.

Norm violating, moreover, had to take a particular form to lead to ostracism. There are norms that violate society as a whole and those that apply to your particular group (“injunctive norms”). If you behave in a way that is not consistent with the people in your own particular circle (e.g., the couple whose conversation you intruded into), this can set you up for being excluded even though you’re not being particularly deviant in the larger sense.

Exclusion’s Remedies

Overall, the Rudert et al. study showed a remarkably high degree of ostracism across all conditions, amounting to as high as 87.5 percent in the most extreme. Unlike real life, behaving in an ostracizing way toward an experimental target had no particular consequences. In real life, though, ordinary people, mindful of the possible blowback effect of being an ostracizer (which makes you look like a norm violator) may mitigate against such overtly cruel behavior. Also, ostracizing someone from one situation may cost the group the potential rewards that this same person may offer in another.

When it comes to your own personal experiences of ostracism, though, this extensive set of studies seems to provide some clear ways to remain a valued member of your group. The most obvious is to learn to “read the room” as you determine, before you act, what type of behavior is called for in a given situation. What cues might you have missed when your friends were talking to them, and not you?

How about if your Internet connection goes down during a group call? Knowing that you may be seen as inept, take extra care to pipe back in as soon as you’re able to do so.

When it comes to stigmatizing causes of ostracism, there are other approaches you can take. Try not to engage in self-deprecating behavior when you’re facing a task that you think you can handle but that might be tough. There’s no need to tell everyone that you’re “bad” at anything.

To sum up, regardless of the situation, don’t let exclusion demoralize you. Getting back into a group you value can help restore relationships that are vital to your fulfillment.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Spectral-Design/Shutterstock


Rudert, S. C., Möring, J. N. R., Kenntemich, C., & Büttner, C. M. (2023). When and why we ostracize others: Motivated social exclusion in group contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology..

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