Immediately after we’ve been shunned, a new study shows our brains engage a subtle mechanism that alters our sense of whether other people are making eye contact with us, so that we think it more likely that they are looking our way. As friendly encounters often begin with a moment of joint eye contact, the researchers, writing in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, think this “widening of the cone of gaze” as they call it could help the ostracised to spot opportunities for forging new relationships.
Pessi Lyyra at the University of Tampere in Finland and his colleagues asked forty students, a mix of men and women, to play an online computer game called Cyberball, which involves passing a ball between players. Each student thought they were playing against two other participants located elsewhere, but actually the game events were pre-programmed such that half the students were ignored by the two other players who passed the ball between each other. The other half of the students were not excluded in this way.
Next, all the students were asked to look repeatedly at a series of cartoon faces presented one at a time – from a selection of four male, four female – each of which varied in the direction of their gaze. Some of the faces were gazing directly out of the screen at the student, others had a gaze direction that was slightly off centre, by either 2, 4, 6 or 8 degrees. The students simply had to say whether they thought each face was looking at them, and how strongly they felt this was the case.
The participants completed two blocks of 72 of these judgments. For the first block, those students who’d been ostracised in the Cyberball game were more inclined to say that off-centre gazes were looking at them, and they tended to report feeling more strongly that they were being looked at. By the second block, this effect had worn off and there was no longer a difference between the ostracised and non-ostracised students.
These results are rather uplifting in that they seem to show that we have an instinctive positive psychological response to being ostracised. They add to similar results published before, such as that ostracised people start acting in a more sociable way and seeing strangers more positively. But they contrast with the dispiriting findings into loneliness where it’s been shown that lonely people tend to change in ways that only deepen their isolation, such as being more vigilant for negative facial expressions. Perhaps the difference is that loneliness is like a chronic form of ostracism. There’s a limit to how many times you can reach out only to be rejected.