Ostracism or exclusion may not leave external scars, but it can cause pain that often is deeper and lasts longer than a physical injury, says a Purdue University expert.
"Being excluded or ostracized is an invisible form of bullying that doesn't leave bruises, and therefore we often underestimate its impact," said Kipling D. Williams, a professor of psychological sciences.
"Being excluded by high school friends, office colleagues, or even spouses or family members can be excruciating. And because ostracism is experienced in three stages, the life of those painful feelings can be extended for the long term. People and clinicians need to be aware of this so they can avoid depression or other negative experiences," added Williams.
When a person is ostracized, the brain's dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which registers physical pain, also feels this social injury, Williams said. The process of ostracism includes three stages: the initial acts of being ignored or excluded, coping and resignation.
"Being excluded is painful because it threatens fundamental human needs, such as belonging and self-esteem," said Williams.
"Again and again research has found that strong, harmful reactions are possible even when ostracized by a stranger or for a short amount of time,' added Williams.
More than 5,000 people have participated in studies using a computer game designed by Williams to show how just two or three minutes of ostracism can produce lingering negative feelings.
"How can it be that such a brief experience, even when being ignored and excluded by strangers with whom the individual will never have any face-to-face interaction, can have such a powerful effect?" he said.
"The effect is consistent even though individuals' personalities vary," he added.
The study is detailed in the current issue of Current Directions in Psychological Sciences.