Observing ostracism: how observers interpret and respond to ostracism situations

Selma C Rudert and Rainer Creifeneder

“We don’t want him to play with us!,” “We’re not inviting her because...,” “I don’t speak to him anymore since....” Most individuals have heard these sentences, be it from children who wish to exclude one of their peers from a game; from colleagues who want to go to lunch without asking one of their co-workers; or even from family members or friends, who shun contact with some person in their close social circle. Ostracism and social exclusion can be observed in almost every social context, in informal as well as formal groups, in humans as well as animals. Previous research on ostracism has mainly focused on the perspective of the target, whereas studies about how observers think about and react to ostracism are relatively rare. In this chapter, we present an overview about how observers detect ostracism, how they interpret and evaluate it, and how they react to it. We conclude this chapter by suggesting how to create an intervention that raises observers’ awareness of ostracism and helps them to make more informed moral judgments that are less prone to potential bias.

Initial responses to observed ostracism

Research emphasizes individuals’ sensitivity to even the smallest signs of ostracism (Rudert, Hales, Greifeneder, & Williams, 2017; Wesselmann, Cardoso, Slater, & Williams, 2012; Williams, 2009; Williams, Hales, & Michels, 2019). This sensitivity is so strong that it is not limited to ostracism that is directly experienced from the ostracized target, but also extends to uninvolved others. Neurophysiological studies suggest that when observers detect ostracism, they think about the other’s mental state, as demonstrated by increased activity in the dorsomedial and medial prefrontal cortex and precuneus (Masten, Eisenberger, Pfeifer, & Dapretto, 2013; Masten, Morelli, & Eisenberger, 2011; Meyer et al., 2012). Many studies also demonstrated that observers show a social pain and distress reaction that is similar to being ostracized themselves, which is characterized by activation in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula, as well as an increase in self-reported need threat (Giesen & Echterhoff, 2018; Masten et al., 2011; Wesselmann, Bagg, & Williams, 2009). This reaction has usually been interpreted as empathy that observers feel for the excluded target, an interpretation that is supported by findings that observers seem to “feel the pain” more strongly when they are asked to take the perspective of the target (Wesselmann et al., 2009), as well as when they have been rejected themselves before watching others being ostracized (Masten et al., 2013).

However, the reasons for ostracism differ, and just as ostracism situations can be perceived and processed differently by the targets of ostracism (Greifeneder & Rudert, 2019; Rudert & Greifeneder, 2016), observers’ reactions may differ as well. In other words, observers do not feel unequivocally bad for every ostracism situation they witness: Ostracism of friends and emotionally close others seems to activate social pain to a much stronger degree than observing a stranger being ostracized does (Beeney, Franklin, Levy, & Adams, 2011; Masten et al., 2013; Meyer et al., 2012). One potential explanation for these findings could be that socially more distant others (e.g., outgroup members or immoral individuals) are judged as being less susceptible to social pain themselves (Riva & Andrighetto, 2012; Riva, Brambilla, & Vaes, 2016). Also, culture seems to be an important moderator, as demonstrated in studies showing that children growing up in an independent culture consider ostracism to be more painful than children growing up in an interdependent culture (Over & Uskul, 2016). One explanation for this phenomenon is that the latter group assumes that it is more likely that the ostracized target will just find social connection elsewhere and thus, ostracism represents a less threatening event (Over & Uskul, 2016; Uskul & Over, 2017). Given these contextual effects, social cognitions about the observed situation are likely to play a crucial role in how observers respond to ostracism.

Attributing and evaluating observed ostracism

To understand how observers think about ostracism, we take a brief look as to why ostracism occurs in the first place, before considering the different functions that it serves (see also Robinson & Schabram, 2019; Tauber, 2019). Ostracism has often been described as a form of social control mechanism that occurs in groups and serves the function of upholding and enforcing social norms (Kerr et al., 2009; Soderberg & Fry, 2017). Individuals who violate group norms and rules are being excluded, either for a short time as a warning, or, if they repeatedly violate norms, they might eventually be excluded permanently, in order to get rid of the deviant as well as to warn others not to follow the deviant’s bad example. Think, for instance, of a student who disturbs class and violates classroom rules: If it happens once or twice, the student might be suspended for a short time and then be allowed back. But if the student ignores these “warning shots” and continues to violate norms, then s/he might eventually be expelled permanently in order to uphold school discipline. Whereas this example describes a relatively formal exclusion process, ostracism can also ensure social control in informal groups. However, the more informal the group, the more easily can ostracism be misused or abused: Other group members may use ostracism to demonstrate their power, increase group cohesion, or simply avoid sharing resources with (or even exploit) the ostracized, helpless target (Kurzban & Leary, 2001).

In sum, individuals who ostracize others may do so out of a variety of reasons (Williams, 1997). From the observers’ perspective, this corresponds to several attributions for ostracism that subsequently may result in very different evaluations (Rudert, Sutter, Corrodi, & Greifeneder, 2018). To the present date, there is little research investigating whether, and under which circumstances, observers perceive these underlying motives accurately or whether they use similar categories as the sources. Here, we will thus focus on three distinct motives that observers can attribute ostracism to: attribution to a punitive motive, to a malicious motive, and to a role-prescribed motive:

First, observers might attribute ostracism to a punitive motive. This means observers have a reason to assume that the target has done something wrong and is therefore being ostracized by the group (the so-called sources of ostracism) as a consequence (Robinson & Schabram, 2019; Williams, 1997). For instance, observers may know that the target tends to be a troublemaker, or they will have seen him or her behaving inappropriately towards the group which has excluded the deviant. To the extent that observers disapprove of the target’s behavior, and see the target as being responsible for getting excluded, they likely perceive ostracism as a justified punishment and consequently side with the sources and do not support the target (Arpin, Froehlich, Lantian, Rudert, & Stelter, 2017). In a qualitative study, we asked participants about the instances in which they remembered witnessing another person being ostracized and then found evidence for such a punitive attribution. One such participant wrote:

In highschool there was a girl that had wanted to join our group project [...] Our group ignore her and did not let her join. [...] This girl had previously been part of our group, however she burned that bridge when she talked behind another person’s back and shared some secrets. No one trusted her after, [verbatim response, including all spelling/grammatical errors].

(Rudert et al., in press)

Beyond anecdotes, we found evidence for punitive attributions in experimental research as well. In one study, we presented participants with the log of an online chat in which three alleged persons discussed how to set up a presentation (Rudert et al., 2018). During the chat, the contributions and ideas of one of the discussants were ignored, see Figure 9.1.

In one condition, the discussant had acted rudely at the beginning of the chat by introducing himself with the words, “Can we get started already? I always hated working in groups.’’ In that condition, participants assumed that

Soda: What about that? ¡mg 1 team or that ¡mg 2 team??

Jazz: Not bad but I also found some: imq 3 team or imq 4 team

Soda: Wow Jazz image 3 is perfect for us!!!

Cube: I think it’s pretty boring. I think it would be better if we created a picture on our own. Then we could also make it fit to my metaphor?!

| | Jazz: I also prefer image 3 Soda but I m not sure yet how we can connect

that to all of the team-building methods we are supposed to include in our

I I presentation?! Any other ideas?

FIGURE 9.1 Excerpt from the chat paradigm we used to create an ostracism situation that participants observed

the discussant was being ostracized because of sources’ punitive motive and as a consequence, they were angrier and less sympathetic toward the target than toward the sources.

Second, observers can attribute ostracism to a malicious motive of the ostracizing group, such as ingroup favoritism, racism, selfishness, or lust for power. This attribution becomes more likely if observers either cannot make out a socially acceptable motive for ostracism, or if there are cues which directly suggest a malicious motive. For instance, if observers see a group of white children ostracizing the only black child, they may attribute ostracism to ingroup favoritism or even racism. When asking participants to recall ostracism situations they had witnessed in real life, many of the answers dealt with someone being ostracized because s/he was of a different race, social status, or had mental deficits, as in the example cited below.

The last time I can remember someone being purposely ignored and excluded was in elementary school. [...] There was a boy in my grade who had some cognitive issues and since it was such a small school, his differences were amplified. Looking back, he likely had severe ADD along with some other issues affecting behavior. He rarely was invited to birthday parties and often sat alone at lunch, [verbatim response, including all spelling/grammatical errors],

(Rudert et al., in press)

Ostracism that is attributed to a malicious motive violates the shared default to include others, and is thus perceived as an inacceptable and inappropriate behavior. As a result, if observers attribute ostracism to a malicious motive, they typically disapprove of the sources’ behavior and side with the target. Evidence for such a malicious attribution has been demonstrated in the majority of observer studies, in which the target was excluded without an apparent reason. In these studies, observers usually showed a clear preference and sympathy for the target (Legate, DeHaan, Weinstein, & Ryan, 2013; Masten et al., 2011; Wesselmann et al., 2009; Wesselmann, Williams, & Hales, 2013; Wesselmann, Wirth, Pryor, Reeder, & Williams, 2013), derogating and devaluing the sources for their ostracizing behavior (Giiroglu, Will, & Klapwijk, 2013; Over & Uskul, 2016; Will, Crone, van den Bos, & Giiroglu, 2013).

Third, it is possible that observers do not even think of the sources’ behavior as ostracism. For instance, in the case of role-prescribed ostracism, observers might feel that an exclusion of the target is in line with the social norms of the situation, and therefore consistent with the target’s social role (Rudert & Greifeneder, 2016; Williams, 1997). Think of a meeting that is limited to employees of a specific group, or think of certain information that is only available for employees of a certain hierarchy level. If everybody involved is aware of these norms and endorses them, not-being-part is perceived as unproblematic and socially acceptable (Greifeneder & Rudert, 2019 ).

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