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Exclusion, Rejection, and Assigning Blame

Similarity between the target and the source influences attribution of blame.

Source: Pexels/Pixabay

In a recent article, Rudert and colleagues advance a theory about how people assign blame when they witness someone being excluded and ignored by others.1

Understanding Ostracism

Ostracism refers to the act of excluding or ignoring others.

Ostracism is ubiquitous—in fact, I witnessed an example of ostracism just a few days ago while waiting for the bus. I noticed a group of girls speaking and laughing together, except for one girl who seemed to be ignored over and over again until she stopped trying to interact with the group. When she got on the bus, she did not sit with the rest, but sat at the back of the bus. I did not know why she was rejected by the group, but I felt sorry for her.

I will return to this example at the end of this article.

Ostracism has many negative consequences. Research has linked the experience of being ostracized to lower levels of self-esteem, lower sense of belonging, decreased sense of being in control, and a diminished sense of significance and value.2

More importantly, these negative outcomes have been shown to occur not only as a result of face-to-face rejection, but also when people are excluded by other on the internet—when the agent of rejection is unknown and unseen. One study found that even being rejected by a computer program has similarly negative consequences. The authors of that study went on to say:

"We remain motivated to find conditions that involve ignoring and exclusion but that are so minimal as to not inflict emotional damage. Based on the present findings, it appears that this search for the necessary and sufficient conditions for ostracism...may be difficult or impossible."2

People who witness an instance of ostracism, however, might be able to offer support. Which is why it is important to learn how witnesses interpret an instance of ostracism; how do they decide who is to blame?

Rejection that is attributed to malice, of course, is considered wrong. But if ostracism is seen as just punishment for some inappropriate behavior by the target, then it is often considered acceptable. In the first case the observers would naturally empathize with the target, and in the second case they would empathize with the ostracizing group.1

But given that onlookers often have very little information about the causes of ostracism, how do they determine who is to blame? According to the Rudert and colleagues’ social dissimilarity rule, when the target is different from the source (i.e. the ostracizing group), observers assume that rejection was caused by malice; on the other hand, when target appears similar to the source, onlookers attribute the rejection to punishment-related motives.

Source: Wokandapix/Pixabay

The Study

In a series of five related studies, Rudert and colleagues put the above theory to the test. The results of the first study, in which participants recalled real-life incidents of ostracism, provided evidence that observers do indeed think of ostracism as motivated by either malice or punishment.

In the next two studies, participants were required to read a description of football fans interacting, in which either the target or one of the members of the ostracizing group were the “odd-one-out.” As expected, the participants felt more sympathy toward the target when the target was the odd-one-out.

Study number 4 involved a supposed chatroom discussion between three members, in which one member was ignored. In one condition, the discussants differed in terms of ethnicity (essential difference) and in another condition in terms of hairstyle (nonessential difference). The results confirmed previous findings in both conditions. In other words, the type of difference did not matter.

In the last study, the researchers repeated the chat situation, but this time the observers had the opportunity to learn why the target was rejected (i.e. for speaking in an unfriendly and rude manner). The results revealed that though knowledge about the target’s behavior affected observers’ judgment, similarity still had an influence, albeit now a much weaker one.

In summary, this series of studies showed that in order to make sense of an ostracism incident (especially in ambiguous situations), observers rely on similarity between the target and the source.

Let me return to my earlier example about the girls in the bus.

Source: Greyerbaby/Pixabay

I don't recall making a conscious judgment at the time, but thinking back, I noticed that the excluded girl looked somewhat different from the other girls (she appeared to be wearing less expensive clothes).

In such cases, especially when the group is homogeneous (and they all seemed to be wearing expensive clothes), observers such as I would be more likely to assume that the group had been unkind toward her (e.g., rejecting her because she was poor).

Of course, the reality could be very different. The girl might have done very hurtful things to the ones in the group. But as observers, we often have only limited information. And one such piece of information is apparent similarity between the target and the source.


1. Rudert, S. C., Sutter, D., Corrodi, V. C., & Greifeneder, R. (2018). Who’s to blame? Dissimilarity as a cue in moral judgments of observed ostracism episodes. Journal of personality and social psychology, 115(1), 31-53.

2. Zadro, L., Williams, K. D., & Richardson, R. (2004). How low can you go? Ostracism by a computer is sufficient to lower self-reported levels of belonging, control, self-esteem, and meaningful existence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 560–567.

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