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Ostracism has been used to mean everything from ignoring and excluding individuals or groups to killing them (Williams, 2001). The word ostracism comes from ancient Greece, where it was custom to write person name on a piece of broken pottery, and later place it in a large container in a public location if one had behaved in a manner that was deemed overly aggressive or offensive. These broken pieces of pottery were called ostraka. If an individual were to have his or her name written 6,000 times the entire community would give that person the silent treatment for ten years.

Solomon Asch was one of the first American social psychologists to examine the effects of ostracism on the common person. He designed a study which demonstrated that young men would alter their perception of an unmistakably correct judgment about the length of a line simply to conform to the opinion of the unanimous majority of peers (Williams, 2001). It was concluded that all of the men shared the same fear of being rejected by the others.

The pervasiveness of ostracism throughout society, institutions, and small groups is reflected by the frequency of ostracism in interpersonal dyadic relationships. A survey (1997) of over 2,000 Americans conducted by Faulkner et al, found that (67%) admitted to using the silent treatment. The silent treatment is the deliberate decision not to speak to someone in your presence, usually a loved one. For those who admitted to having been a target of the silent treatment of a loved one the percentage was a higher (75%) (Williams, 2001). However, as noted by Williams, it is human tendency to cast a favorable impression, (even telephone interviewers) thus it seems likely that these percentages are underestimates of the actual prevalence.

Research suggests that ostracism is an effective form of controlling contranormative behaviors, punishing deviance, and increasing in-group cohesion (Alexander 1986; Barner-Barry, 1986; Basso, 1972; Boehm, 1986; Mahdi, 1986). For example ostracism is still one of the more common methods used to discipline young children, by parents and teachers alike. The issue of enforcing time outs, in schools and special education programs alike, has been discussed at length by social psychologists. The common denominator of most forms of time-out is the reduction of social attention. But this can be carried out in a number of ways, from physically relocating the child to a time-out room, to systematically ignoring the child who remains the same social environment (Brooks, Perry, & Hingerty, 1992; Heron, 1987). It has yet to be determined as to whether time-outs are a beneficial form of discipline.

There are three main forms of ostracism. There is physical ostracism, social ostracism, and cyber-ostracism (Williams, 2001).

Physical ostracism: Involves withdrawing from or leaving the situation (e.g., leaving a room during an argument, being put in solitary confinement, being exiled). Physical ostracism describes the loss of visibility inherent in physical separation, which includes expulsion, banishment, exile, solitary confinement, time-out in a separate room, or at an interpersonal level, spending less or no time with an individual, or removing oneself from his or her presence (Williams, 2001).

Social ostracism: Involves an emotional withdrawal that occurs in the physical presence of the target (e.g., removal of eye contact, not talking, and not listening). The source and the target, in social ostracism, remain visible to each other. Common terms such as “silent treatment,” “cold shoulder,” and “freezing out” are likely to refer to social ostracism. Ironically, even though victims are visible during social ostracism, it is with this type of ostracism that targets may actually feel invisible; victims of physical ostracism who are in fact not seen probably do not feel invisible (Williams, 2001).

Cyberostracism: Encompasses all forms of being ignored or left out in interactions other than those that are face to face, such as not receiving mail (whether e-mail or posted letters), phone calls, or other forms of communication (e.g., memos), or being ignored in chat rooms, MUDs (multiuser domains), or other forms of interpersonal communication or participation on the Internet (Williams, 2001).

.Ciarocco, Sommer, Baumeister, (2001) conducted two studies which monitored how ostracism might affect the ego. In the Study 1, people who followed instructions and avoided conversation with a confederate for a total of 3 minutes, later show decrements in persistence on unsolvable problems. In Study 2, ostracizers showed sudden impairments in physical stamina on a handgrip task. Although ostracism affected mood too, mood did not appear to mediate the main findings. Past work has shown that ostracism has negative consequences for the victim, but present results indicate that ostracism can be harmful to the ostracizer too.

An experiment was conducted in 2001, by a group of social psychologists who attempted to recreate rejection in a laboratory (Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, Stucke, 2001).

Two lab experiments focused on outright rejection. The participants involved in the study met with a group and were then asked of whom they would like to collaborate with to work on the assigned task. Some participants were told that no one wanted to work with them. They then played a game with the stranger, the winner of the game was allowed “blast” the loser with an unpleasant noise. The winner could set the noise for its intensity or duration to wage against there opponent when they lost. In other experiments psychologists paired or grouped students, then had them take personality tests or write essays on what was deemed a current political topic. Each participant was then randomly assigned to listen to one of three predictions that they would spend their future alone, have a life full of misfortunes, or experience belonging (the control group).

There were two control groups, one of which was accident prone and had a negative life outcome, and the other had no feedback about action or future events. After being told the other person was responsible for the feedback on their essays, having first received false positive or negative information about the essays, the students were asked to closely evaluate the other person for a job position. Those students who were told the individual rated their essay negatively, were more inclined to rate their counterpart more negatively for the job position. Lastly, the researchers tested whether or not rejection produces bad mood or feelings of aggression. In short, those who were told they were going to be alone were the individuals who gave negative feedback for job evaluations.

Results: Excluded people issued a more negative job evaluation against someone who insulted them, (Experiments 1 and 2). Excluded people also blasted a target with higher levels of aversive noise both when the target had insulted them (Experiment 4) and when the target was a neutral person and no interaction had occurred (Experiment 5). However, excluded people were not more aggressive toward someone who issued praise (Experiment 3). These responses were specific to social exclusion (as opposed to other misfortunes) and were not mediated by emotion (Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, Stucke, 2001).

It is a “consensus among social and biological scientists that ostracism has a strong negative impact on its targets, there is little discussion or agreement about the nature of this impact on its targets, there is little discussion or agreement about the nature of this impact and the conditions under which it will or will not occur. Some biologists and physiologists claim ostracism causes general “physiological deregulation” it interferes with our immunological functioning and hypothalamic reactions that are related to aggression and depression (Kling, 1986; Raleigh & McGuire, 1986). Targets of long term ostracism report consequences ranging from self destructive behaviors (indiscriminant bonding, suicidal thoughts and attempts, alcoholism) to aversive effects of ostracism on their physical mental health (Williams, 2001).


Williams, K.D. (2001). Ostracism: The power of silence. New York: Guilford.

Twenge, J.M., Baumeister, R.F., Tice, D.M., & Stucke, T.S. (2001). If you can’t join them, beat them: Effects of social exclusion on aggressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1058-1069

Ciarocco, N.J., Sommer, K.L., Baumeister R.F., (2001) Ostracism and Ego Depletion: The Strains of Silence. Pers Soc Psychol Bull.2001; 27: 1156-1163

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