Ostracism: The First Form of Social Distancing

The school bell has rung, class is now in session.

William’s argued that if ostracism persists for an extended period of time, individuals will become resigned to their fate and ultimately experience an acceptance of atrophied need satisfactions: Alienation (need to belong), depression (self-esteem), learned helplessness (control), and unworthiness (meaningful existence). Research on chronic ostracism has received little experimental study, but qualitative evidence suggests that consistent exposure to ostracism can lead to extreme consequences.

— Williams, 2009

Ostracism, also known as shunning, has been used by groups as a form of social control for others who are perceived to be different or problematic. Researchers from various social sciences argue that shunning has served as a useful social tactic throughout time. This is because it normally strengthens the group by motivating the “problem member” to obey the social norms set by the group.

Have you ever been a victim of ostracism or been a willing participant? It does not feel good to be on the receiving end, and can produce an unexpected end for some. Previously, I shared a post from one of my blog friends that discussed suicide. One of the contributing factors to suicide is ostracism. Indefinite ostracism has been described as social death for tribal and ancestral humans because it severed social connections necessary for survival in hunter-gather settings (Boehm, 1986Williams, 2009)

A series of studies asked participants to relive either an autobiographical memory that involved a physical injury or a social injury (i.e., betrayal by a person close to them) that had occurred within the past five years (Chen et al., 2008) I want to share one of the participant’s story below.

I was in the eighth grade and five of my best friends for no knowledgeable reason, drew a very mean and hateful picture of me and had everyone in the eighth grade class sign it and write crude and provocative remarks. They then handed it to me with the whole class in the cafeteria watching and laughing. I spent the rest of the day in the principal’s office crying, while he called everyone who signed it into his office one by one. It was the worst betrayal I have ever felt, and I never forgave my group of friends really. I never was close to them again after that, and soon found other friends, but never became as close to others because of this incident. I felt like an idiot and foolish for not knowing that my “friends” were like that and that I had no idea what was going on. I also felt extremely hurt, like I was a loser. I felt like never having friends again. I also felt very confused, I had no idea what I did to deserve this. I was also very depressed and lonesome.

— Anonymous

The difference between experiencing physical and social pain is, that when recalling social pain; it feels like the person is experiencing the pain all over again. Whether the social pain is experienced in person, through text, or online, the effects are still the same.

Ostracism Cues

There are a variety of cues that could indicate one is being ostracized, each situation depends on the setting. In school, it can be like the student above, having a group of people she thought were her friends, make fun of her, while encouraging others to join. In the workplace, it could consist of suddenly being left out of things that one would normally participate. In an organization, it could mean no longer being included and made to feel like a stranger among the familiar. Ostracism may vary in different environments, but the common foundation consist of groups that socially distancing themselves from others.

Ostracism occurs naturally among humans as a way to protect group members from going against the rules, but it is not a healthy practice. Maturity gives people the ability to handle listening to different opinions objectively, while agreeing to disagree. The term, agree to disagree, is often said but lacks authenticity. Instead of agreeing to just move on from the disagreement, the usual response is ostracism, shunning, and/or deletion from the circle.

This is not an indictment on people who end relationships between friends or associates, because that can be quite necessary, especially if the person is draining your energy. As I have spoken on before in a previous post.


This is an indictment on those who have shunned others without a cause. Separation can take place without negativity or slander; it could happen gracefully without ruining the person’s need satisfaction. To speak ill, taint the reputation of, or make someone feel less than just to follow the herd, happens often because those in the group do not want to be shunned. Everyone has experienced it, but if it has become a natural occurrence in your life even now, it is time to reflect on why.

Reflect and Ask Yourself – Why do I have to make someone feel small in order to feel good about myself? Why do I have to discredit someone because they have a different opinion from me? What is in me that makes me not be able to stand up for someone, in the midst of my peers?

I have a secret. Peer pressure does not end in grade school, it is on-going even in adulthood. The question is, how will you choose to handle it going forward? Your actions matter and can determine the outcome. We are in the time of social distancing, but I wanted to bring awareness to the first form of social distancing, Ostracism. This is actually within our control.

The school bell has rung, class dismissed.


Boehm, C. (1986). Capital punishment in tribal Montenegro: Implications for law, biology, and theory of social control. Ethology and Sociobiology, 7, 305–320.

Chen, Z., Williams, K. D., Fitness, J., & Newton, N. C. (2008). When hurt won’t heal: Exploring the capacity to relive social pain. Psychological Science, 19, 789–795.

Williams, K. D. (2009). Ostracism: Effects of being excluded and ignored. In M.Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 275–314). New York: Academic Press.

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