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University of Basel

Left out and excluded.

Text: Rainer Greifeneder und Selma Rudert

It is painful when other people exclude you. Especially when you don’t know why.

Rainer Greifeneder and Selma Rudert are both researchers at the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Basel.
Rainer Greifeneder and Selma Rudert are both researchers at the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Basel.

It is painful to be excluded. Regardless of whether the person who does so is a friend or an enemy, or whether the exclusion is real or imagined, it always hurts when you are shut out, just as it always hurts when you put your hand into a fire. In the literature, it is likened to a reflex. Although social exclusion does no harm to the body, it activates the same areas of the brain as physical pain. Most people report that they have been ostracized and excluded at some point—in the school playground, for example, or at work.

Some even report being left out on a regular basis. This has negative consequences both for those who are being excluded and for the groups that are excluding them. To take an extreme example, the majority of young people who carry out shootings at schools do so following long periods of marginalization. Companies, too, can be harmed if excluded individuals are less motivated, develop symptoms of depression or start to behave in ways that are damaging to business.

Why do we experience social exclusion as painful? People have a basic human need to belong. From an evolutionary perspective, groups provided protection and allowed for the sharing of work and knowledge. If you belonged to a group, you were more likely to survive and prosper; left to fend for yourself, you could expect your life to be hard and – often – short.

According to scholars, this explains why people are extremely sensitive to signs of impending social exclusion. The feelings of danger and pain that an individual experiences provide a warning, signaling the urgent need to act. Interestingly, we do not need to be actively excluded to have these feelings; we also feel pain when we are ignored by others, or even when we only think that we are being ignored. There are many reasons for social exclusion.

Many people assume that it is motivated by malice; they think, for example, of bullying at school. Some think of the perpetrators as sadistic individuals, who take pleasure in the pain of those they have excluded.

The second kind of social exclusion has nobler motivations, from the point of view of those doing the excluding. Groups, institutions and societies are themselves exposed to dangers that threaten their survival, so they use shared norms and laws to ensure that their members are able to co-exist harmoniously and effectively.

Social exclusion is used today, as in the past, to punish failure to observe these common rules and thereby to ensure that the group’s survival is not threatened. This is the case both in large groups and in the very smallest units—for example when parents send a child to his or her room for throwing food around.

A third very common reason for social exclusion is to do with social roles and hierarchies. For example, the President’s Conference at the University of Basel is restricted to members of the President’s Board and the deans, while all other members of the university are excluded. Generally, people do not find this type of social exclusion hurtful, as it is justified by the role of those concerned within the organization. In the same way, the management of a company does not generally find it hurtful to be excluded from meetings of the works council.

What is interesting about role-related exclusion is that the excluded individuals feel no pain, even though they have, in fact, been left out. This is where the analogy with putting your hand in a fire breaks down. Social pain is indeed different from physical pain because people have no direct receptors for social exclusion; rather, they have to construct each individual situation in their heads. This construction is influenced by other ideas—for example, identification with certain social roles—which prevents the experience of pain.

A fourth reason for social exclusion is ignorance—of a person’s existence or abilities, for instance. A temp working at a company may not be invited to a barbecue because the organizers are unaware of their existence; information exchanged in the corridor may not reach a colleague who is working from home; a French-speaking member of staff may feel left out at lunch because her two Bernese colleagues have lapsed into dialect without thinking. Although this fourth form of exclusion is generally unintentional, the ironic thing is that it is particularly hurtful; someone who is being ignored feels invisible and, therefore, that their very existence is being called into question. Against this background, studies show that an impolite rejection is preferable to none at all, for example, as an impolite rejection at least acknowledges your existence as a person and gives you a chance to vent your anger. If you do not receive a rejection, it signals that even this was too much effort in your case.

The key factor in determining the stance of third parties is which of these reasons they see as applying in a particular situation. If they believe that someone’s exclusion is motivated by malice, observers will sympathize with the excluded person and want to help them. If, on the other hand, they see exclusion as prompted by a desire to uphold social rules, observers will sympathize with those doing the excluding and withhold support from the excluded person. However, the reasons for social exclusion are seldom that clear-cut. In many everyday situations, observers do not know the reasons for social exclusion, as they may not have been present to witness all that happened, for instance. In such cases, there is a simple rule that often determines who attracts their sympathy and support. If the victim and the perpetrator are similar—for example, in appearance—people will assume that exclusion is being imposed as a punishment. Yet, where there are differences between victim and perpetrator, there will be an assumption of malicious intent.

Anyone who excludes others deliberately should be aware of how much it can hurt. It is particularly important for those, such as parents, who do it in the belief that they are acting in the group’s best interests to realize this. Children, like adults, find it painful to be sent to “their room” or ignored. It is also a good idea to be aware of the consequences of unintentional exclusion and to take steps to prevent it. Organizations can make a key contribution in this regard by having a transparent information policy and culture, both internally and externally.

Rainer Greifeneder has been Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Basel since 2012. He studied social and economic psychology in Mannheim and at the University of Virginia (USA).

Selma Rudert has a PhD in psychology and is a postdoc and research associate in social psychology at the University of Basel.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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