Alone in the Crowd: The Pain of Social Exclusion

David Oberleitner, Ph.D., first became interested in studying the effects of social exclusion as an undergraduate student in 2002, just as this social phenomena was beginning to be studied widely. “To me, it is such a ubiquitous experience in so many people’s lives,” states Oberleitner, associate professor of psychology at the University of Bridgeport. “[Being excluded] is a pretty universal experience: when you raise your hand in class and aren’t called on; if you’re ignored in a professional setting; when children are left out of games on the playground.” While still an undergraduate, he heard a pioneer in the field speak to this topic. “It got me excited. I liked it because I am a social psychologist and we study social interaction. Social exclusion is the opposite of that; it is the absence of interaction.”

In 2013, Oberleitner co-authored a research article for the European Journal of Social Psychology titled “Upright and Left out: Posture Moderates the Effects of Social Exclusion on Mood and Threats to Basic Needs.” The study was designed to look at possible ways to defeat the negative consequences of being socially excluded. Oberleitner noted, “We wondered if sitting up straight could shield you against the negative effects of being left out, given the boost it gives to one’s confidence and self-esteem. We found that doing so seemed to intensify the negative effects of exclusion, when being left out of an online game interaction. The temporary boost made it a little higher for the excluded individual to fall. What surprised me and moved me toward social health and exclusion is my interest in the fact that we do not have standardized ways to try and combat the negative effects of social exclusion. People have similar experiences when they’re socially excluded. But as a field, we don’t know how to take the next step.”

Are some people predisposed to feelings of despair when socially excluded because, perhaps as children, they suffered the same fate? Oberleitner says he doesn’t have the answer. “For some, it may become part of the persona they adopt – that of the ‘left-out individual.’ And that can have chronic negative effects. For others, that feeling of being excluded is more fleeting. What that occurs is something the field has struggled to figure out.” There’s also the idea of the “perception” of being excluded: “If someone thinks they’re being left out or isolated – is that more important than truly being left out? This leads to more recent work I’ve been doing via a social health collaboration with researchers at the Yale School of Medicine on how social isolation and rejection sensitivity interact. Why might some people interpret ambiguous situations as them being left out and ignored, whereas that’s not always the case? But for some reason, they’re more sensitive to those cues. How does this differing perception and exclusion impact people’s overall health? Why are people feeling that way? It’s an important piece.”

When confronted with social exclusion/social isolation, people universally respond with predictable negative patterns of thinking: self-esteem goes down, they experience negative emotions, have a decreased sense of belonging, and feel less in control of their lives. Once excluded – or once people perceive exclusion – they also tend to have similar negative behaviors. “People become less helpful and less pro-social to others, which may hurt them in reestablishing social connections,” states Oberleitner. “People may also be more likely to engage in aggressive behavior. Someone who engages in a school shooting—it is a common thread that they had a background of social exclusion. It is a common theme, oftentimes coupled with mental illness.” One of the classes Oberleitner teaches is Psychology of Stigma. He notes that there are many ways in which someone can feel stigmatized, whether it’s their sexual orientation, age, weight or race. All can contribute to feeling left out. “We see similar consequences regardless of why the exclusion occurred,” he adds.

Oberleitner also highlights the correlation between physical and emotional pain. “The brain reacts the same way with emotional pain as it does with physical pain. There’s a really strong link in how the brain interprets both.” He mentions how this process is being studied. “Some people experiencing emotional pain have been given either a placebo pill or Tylenol. What some research groups have found is that Tylenol helps to also shut down the emotional pain activation. This is part of what led me to collaborate with researchers at the Yale School of Medicine, who are also involved with the study of chronic pain and substance abuse. Can we come up with ways to deal with chronic pain that could also benefit those who’ve been socially excluded?”

Since his findings suggest that social isolation leads to more perceptions of pain, Oberleitner hopes to someday delve further into the connection between social exclusion and substance abuse; i.e., how people might self-medicate as a means of coping with their feelings of isolation. “It might be why some people are more accepting of losing social connections. If they use something like opioids, does that override the natural system of seeking out connection because their social pain is being blocked? More evidence is needed. This is something that’s really underexplored, given the social ramifications and the ubiquitous nature of being socially excluded.”

One wonders if coping skills should be taught earl on, during a child’s formative years, by parents who are all too aware of the devastation that can be heaped upon innocent people via school shootings and other acts of violence. “The literature supports teaching coping skills to children, even if it is not considered a standardized way to treat experience.” If a child feels isolated, his parents or other trusted adults can remind him about other positive experiences in his life, tempering the sting of bullying or social exclusion. Encouraging avenues in which children can experience positivity, e.g. joining a theater group or sports team, may help soften the blow of isolation so it doesn’t become their dominant worldview. For teenagers and pre-teens, the knowledge that they are outsiders is typically heightened. There’s also a reluctance to confide in adults because the embarrassment can be too much to bear.

The advent of the Internet and the cyber bullying that can sometimes arise is just one more way in which people can feel socially excluded. This technology highlights the divide between the generations, making the old adage “Chin up! Learn to fight back” seem dangerously passé. Parents may have less awareness of the full extent of cyberbullying their child may be experiencing. “Parents don’t always know what ‘Snapchat’ is. It makes it harder if a parent doesn’t realize what’s happening.”

The concept of introducing children to positive avenues of social acceptance may also work for adults experiencing social exclusion. “If I looked at it from a lifespan approach, it would really highlight how common this experience is for most people. You can seek out areas in which you feel included and cared about. If a person is sensitive to a situation they may have perceived incorrectly, we shouldn’t imply that it’s all in their head; rather, we should offer a strategy to minimize the event that’s truly there or help them change their perception of the situation.” Oberleitner says that his overarching goal is to figure out ways to treat a person who feels this social pain acutely with perhaps some of the same methods used to deal with folks suffering from chronic pain. “The key is to bridge the gap. We know the pain systems are similar, but how do we utilize that knowledge to treat the socially wounded?”