'Mean girls' be warned! Giving someone the cold shoulder can inflict as much pain on you as it does on others, according to a new study. University of Rochester researchers found that individuals who deliberately shun another person are equally distressed by the experience. "In real life and in academic studies, we tend to focus on the harm done to victims in cases of social aggression," said co-author Richard Ryan. "This study shows that when people bend to pressure to exclude others, they also pay a steep personal cost. Their distress is different from the person excluded, but no less intense," Ryan said. The research found that complying with instructions to exclude another person leads most people to feel shame and guilt, along with a diminished sense of autonomy, explained Nicole Legate, lead author of the paper published in journal Psychological Science. The results also showed that inflicting social pain makes people feel less connected to others. "We are social animals at heart. We typically are empathetic and avoid harming others unless we feel threatened," Legate said. The findings point to the hidden price of going along with demands to exclude individuals based on social stigmas, such as being gay, the authors wrote. To capture the dual dynamics of social rejection, the researchers turned to Cyberball, an online game developed by ostracism researcher Kipling Williams of Purdue University. For this study, each participant tossed a ball with two other "players" in the game.
The participant is led to believe that the other players are controlled by real people from offsite computers. In fact, the virtual players are part of the experiment and are pre-programmed to either play fair (share the ball equally) or play mean (exclude one player after initially sharing the ball twice). The researchers randomly assigned 152 undergraduates to one of four game scenarios. In the "ostraciser" group, one of the virtual players was programmed to exclude the other virtual player and the study participant was instructed to exclude the same player. In a second set-up, the tables were turned. This time the pre-programmed players froze out the study participant. The study participant, who read instructions to throw the ball to other players, was left empty handed for most of the game, watching the ball pass back and forth, unable to join in. The study found that being shunned, even by faceless strangers in a computer game, was upsetting and lowered participant's mood. "Although there are no visible scars, ostracism has been shown to activate the same neural pathways as physical pain," said Ryan.