Studying the pain of being ignored

To most people, being ignored is worse than being physically tortured.

At least that’s what Purdue University psychology professor Kip Williams says. Since 1995, Williams has devoted his time to researching and testing the psychological effects of ostracism.

Williams presented his research findings and experimental results Tuesday at the first session of the Bartholomew County Purdue Extension Office’s All In: Building a Positive Community program. The three-session series is designed to teach adults how to promote a spirit of inclusiveness at home, at work and in the community as a whole.

“Ostracism is ubiquitous and universal,” Williams told the crowd of about 50 adults who attended his presentation at Southside Elementary School. “And it’s not just with humans.”

All social animals are naturally inclined to ostracize others when they’re upset or threatened, Williams said. From a human perspective, that usually means freezing someone out or giving the cold shoulder — literally.

“We put a thermometer on people’s fingers, and we watch their temperatures literally go down when they feel ostracized,” Williams said.

Even though feelings of isolation usually only affect a person emotionally, the brain still processes those feelings as physical pain, Williams said.

That’s why ostracism can cause extreme reactions, such as dangerous social nonconformity — examples of drugs, risky behaviors — or physical violence toward other people, he said.

As an experimental social psychologist, Williams runs a lab to test people’s reactions to feeling isolated. His main experimental model is the “ball-tossing game,” which involves three people throwing a ball back and forth.

Two of the people are secretly told to only toss the ball to each other after a minute of playing. The third person, however, does not know about the experiment and thinks they’re being purposely ignored.

“No one ever said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and no one ever tried to intercept the ball,” Williams said.

Instead, the third person always kept with the social norm and allowed themselves to be ignored in an attempt to not act in a way that would cause further isolation, he said.

Williams adapted his experiment into “Cyberball,” which follows the model of the ball-tossing game, but with two virtual players and one real player.

The real player presses a button every time the virtual players toss the ball to them, but eventually the virtual players will only pass the ball to each other.

Even though the virtual players can’t be seen, Williams said the real person will always feel the same physical and emotional effects of ostracism when they don’t receive the ball.

“It became very hard for me to watch,” Williams said.

There’s no concrete solution to eliminating ostracism, Williams said, so the best option is to teach people how to cope when they feel left out.

Some of the best coping mechanisms are comfort food, prayer and a reminder that people care about the ostracized person, he said.

What's next

All In: Building a Positive Community

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Aug. 25, with doors open at 5:30 p.m. In Tuesday’s session, participants will watch “REJECT,” a film that features Williams’ ostracism research. In the wrap-up, a community roundtable will allow residents to discuss ways to increase inclusiveness in Columbus.

Where: Southside Elementary School, 1320 W. County Road 200S, with child care provided at the Community Building at the Bartholomew County Fairgrounds.

Cost: Sessions and child care are free.

Information: Contact Harriet Armstrong or Elisabeth Smith at the Bartholomew County Purdue Extension Office at 812-379-1665

Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.