The Pain Of Social Rejection Is Similar Whether We Are Being Excluded By A Partner Or A Stranger

By Emma Young

Imagine that you’re with your partner at a party and you both get chatting to a stranger. Your partner and the stranger get on really well. Before long, they’re laughing away and ignoring you. Which would hurt most: rejection by the stranger, or by your partner?

The answer, according to new research in Social Psychology is that — in the moment, at least — they would hurt the same. It seems that we have such a deep need for affiliation that any form of ostracism triggers similar levels of immediate pain.

Anne Böckler at Leibniz University in Germany and colleagues asked participants to come to the lab with either a friend of the same sex or a romantic partner (of the opposite sex, in this case). While in a separate room from their friend/partner, they played a screen-based ball-tossing game with what they thought was their friend/partner and a third online player. In fact, the passes from this other “player” as well as the passes that the participant believed their friend/partner to be making were controlled by the researchers.

Photographs of the participant, their friend/partner and the third player (who was of the same gender as the friend/partner) were displayed on the screen next to individual icons. By clicking different buttons on the keyboard, the participant could choose who to pass the ball to. But how many times they were themselves passed the ball depended on their experimental condition. “Included” participants received 20 of the overall 60 passes (as would happen if the ball tosses were equally shared). Those who were “excluded by their friend/partner” received 10 passes overall, all from the stranger. Those who were “excluded by the stranger” also received a total of 10 passes, but all from their friend/partner. People in the fourth group were more completely excluded: after receiving two passes at the beginning of the game, they were then ignored.

Immediately after the game, participants completed questionnaires about their mood during and after playing. These revealed that exclusion dampened people’s mood during (though not after) the game, whether they had been excluded by a partner, friend or stranger. Total exclusion had a bigger effect on mood.

Fully-included participants also scored higher than all the others on measures of “belongingness”, self-esteem, meaningful existence (having a central reason for being), and overall basic need satisfaction. Those who had been fully excluded showed even lower basic need satisfaction than the other groups, though full exclusion did not worsen effects on self-esteem. “Crucially, when comparing exclusions by close other with exclusion by a stranger we found no significant differences for any individual or overall basic needs,” the researchers note. Scores for relationship satisfaction were also lower when the participants were excluded by a stranger, friend, or partner, and lowest among those who were totally excluded. So, while the degree of ostracism clearly mattered, being excluded by a stranger, friend, or partner had the same impacts.

This is a small study, however. And it focused on impacts during and immediately after the game. Rejection by a romantic partner or close friend would surely have longer-lasting effects — even if indirectly, by altering perceptions of the quality of the relationship itself. (I should note that the participants were all debriefed afterwards.) A bigger study might also find impacts on the participants’ behaviour. In this work, exclusion didn’t affect who the participants chose to pass the ball to — there was no evidence that excluded participants tried either to “tend and befriend” their rejector, or stopped passing them the ball.

Though this new study is one of the first to simultaneously compare the effects of ostracism by friends/partners vs strangers, earlier studies have found that even ostracism by a computer, or someone belonging to a detested group, such as the Ku Klux Klan, has negative effects.

All of these findings speak to the fundamental nature of the effects of ostracism on our wellbeing. Our ancestors’ lives depended on their having strong social networks — and the drive to have and preserve one, is, it seems, still with us.

Stranger, Lover, Friend?: The Pain of Rejection Does Not Depend

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest