02: Ostracism

The need to belong and to have intense and meaningful relationships with others is an innate quality of human beings. Without having positive and interpersonal relationships, the survival of both human and animal species would not have been possible. Therefore, it is not surprising that a lack of these important relationships has adverse effects on our physical and mental health (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Smith et al., 1999). The American psychologist-philosopher William James noted that:

‘No more fiendish punishment could be devised were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof.’ (James, 1890, p. 294).

In the last two decades, researchers have shown an ever-increasing interest in uncovering and understanding what happens to individuals when they are ostracised (ignored or excluded) by other individuals or groups. Studies have shown that ostracism is part of our day-to-day lives. Ostracism is not limited to adult relationships but is also present in relationships and interactions between children. Barner-Barry (1986, p. 28) found that pre-school children engage in ostracism as a way of controlling other children’s behaviour. With ostracism being such a pervasive social behaviour, or more strictly speaking a non-behavior (Williams, Bernieri, Faulkner, Gada-Jain, Grahe, 2000, 25), it begs the question of how frequently it occurs. An Australian study that asked participants to record ostracism episodes in diaries revealed that individuals experience, on average, one ostracism episode a day (Williams, Wheeler, & Harvey, 2001). However, people are both sources and targets of ostracism. In an American study, 67% of participants indicated that they deliberately ignored a partner or friend in their presence (silent-treatment), and 75% of participants stated that a loved one had ostracized them (Faulkner, Williams, Sherman & Williams, 1997).

The observation of ostracism among humans as well as animals and across time and cultures suggests that it is an innate behaviour used by its sources as a way of adapting to situational factors and circumstances (Williams, 2007, p. 429). In the animal kingdom, ostracism is used to protect and strengthen the group, by removing members who present a threat, reducing inbreeding and regulating scarcity of resources. Similarly, in human relationships, ostracism is used to remove members from a group that do not adhere to social rules. Thereby, adherence to group norms increases and group cohesiveness is strengthened. In summary, from an evolutionary perspective, ostracism is a functional and adaptive behaviour that ensures the survival of a group and its in-members, by removing burdensome members. For excluded members, on the other hand, ostracism can lead to the death of the ostracized individual in extreme cases (Kerr & Levine, 2008, p. 39; Williams, 2009, p. 283).


As mentioned previously, researchers’ interest in this field has increased exponentially over the last two decades. The vast majority of research efforts have focused on the effects of ostracism on the targeted individual or group. Williams & Zardo (2005) revised Williams (1997) originally proposed model of ostracism, according to which ostracised individuals process the ostracism episode through three stages. This ostracism model focuses on the target’s experience of ostracism, which complements the perspective of the present study.


In the first stage, the reflexive response stage, targets of ostracism experienced distress, social pain, and a threat to four fundamental needs: the need to belong, control, self-esteem and meaningful existence. The experience of this distress, social pain and need threat has been found to be a universal response to ostracism and appears to occur independently of personality and the social context. Williams & Beest (2006), conducted an experiment via a virtual ball-toss game – ‘cyberball’ (developed by Williams et al., 2000) – in which participants would receive money for being excluded from the ball-toss game and would lose money if they were included in the ball-toss game. They found, that even in situations where ostracism led to financial gain, participants still reported that being excluded was hurtful. In another experiment, Gonsalkorale & Williams (2007) found that even when the source of ostracism is a despised out-group (the researchers chose the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a reference) the adverse effects participants experienced from the exclusion by a despised group were no less than if they were excluded from a group that they sympathized with. Studies also reported that the immediate pain felt after rejection, is not dependent on the psychological closeness of the source; ostracism is just as painful when the source is a stranger (Williams, 2007, p. 473).

Furthermore, ostracism is not only painful in face-to-face interaction, but also in removed and virtual environments, such as texting, chat rooms and virtual ball-toss games (Smith & Williams, 2004, p. 292). Furthermore, Coyne, Gundersen, Nelson & Robinson (2011, p. 21) found that people who were observing ostracism on a video clip, self-reported feelings of distress that could even be physiologically measured. These research findings suggest that the intense, immediate social pain felt from ostracism acts as a pre-cognitive alarm system to alert individuals of a potential threat. Some researchers even argue that the threat of survival, inherent in extreme cases of ostracism, has led to an evolutionary overlap of neurological and physiological alarm systems, to ensure that targets were able to adjust behavior, repair the relationship, and ultimately secure survival (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2005, p. 110; MacDonald & Leary, 2005, p. 20). This argument has been corroborated by fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) studies that show that ostracism episodes activate parts of the brain that are associated with processing physical pain. De Wall and colleagues (2010, p. 931) also found evidence in support of an overlap between neurological and physiological pathways. In their experimental study, ostracised participants who were given pain relief medication showed less distress when compared to placebo treatment. This suggests that numbing physical pain may simultaneously numb social pain. Wesselmann, Nairne & Williams (2012, p. 312) had found evidence to suggest that social pain, in opposition to physical pain, can be re-experienced by individuals as if it were happening ‘right now’ when they were reflecting on an ostracism episode in their past.


The second stage, according to Williams & Zardo’s (2005) ostracism model is marked by reflective efforts. The ostracised individual is reflecting on the ostracism episode, its source and reasons, and appraises its significance. This stage also involves coping with the exclusion and fortifying the needs that have been thwarted. Coping responses are moderated depending on which of the four fundamental needs (belonging, self-esteem, control or meaningful existence) are threatened, situational factors and individual differences. The two most important coping responses researchers have focused on are prosocial behaviour and antisocial behaviour. Particularly antisocial behaviour has stirred researchers interest, as it is counter-productive to the need for inclusion. A third coping response, social avoidant or withdrawn behaviour has received less attention (Smart Richman & Leary, 2009, p. 377).

Researchers focusing on prosocial behaviour versus antisocial behaviour regarding ostracism, suggest that individuals whose need for belonging and self-esteem are thwarted, are more likely to respond in a prosocial manner, attempting to repair the relationship and be reaccepted by the individual or group who is the source of the ostracism. Gomez, Morales, Hart, Vazquez & Swann (2011, p. 1574) argue that individuals whose identity has fused with the group are more likely to display prosocial behaviours than those whose identity has not fused with the group. Also, the degree to which the individual believed the group would re-accept him/her at a later stage, appeared to influence a targets’ resort to antisocial behaviour. Prosocial behaviour may also be moderated by a cost-benefit analysis (Van Beest & Williams, 2006, p. 919). Individuals who feel that the costs of losing a relationship outweigh its’ benefits may be more inclined to seek relationship repair. Similarly, victims of ostracism may identify with a counter-group and act prosocially towards the counter or out-group to gain membership and security. On the other side, individuals whose need for control and meaning is threatened tend to display antisocial behavior towards the source of the ostracism as a means to restore and fortify their sense of control (Warburton et al., 2006, p. 21; Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000, p. 758). An individual’s need may be particularly control threatened when the reasons for ostracism are unknown, and the ostracized individual lacks ‘interpretative control’ (Rothbaum, Weiz & Snyder, 1982, 5). Antisocial responses towards the source of ostracism, according to Smart Richman & Leary (2009, p. 368), were also more likely to occur if the individual evaluated the behaviour as unjustified or the relationship to the source was not deemed essential. People who believed that the group would not reconsider were more inclined to respond in an antisocial manner than individuals who felt that they could rejoin the group in the future (Twenge, 2005, 1058). Experimental studies (Warburton, Williams and Cairns, 2006, p. 215; Williams, 2007, p. 441) demonstrate that ostracised individuals may turn on the ostracisers and devalue and criticise them. Williams (2007, p. 43) found that a history of rejection may lead to maladaptive responses, such as ‘rejection sensitivity’ that may, in turn, increase the risk of future rejection. Downey and colleagues (2002, p. 547) demonstrated that men who are rejection sensitive and simultaneously highly value their relationship with a romantic partner are more likely to use violence in that relationship.

It is important to note, however, that most studies investigating the link between ostracism and antisocial behaviour have been correlational. It is therefore unclear, whether rejection leads to aggression and antisocial behaviour in some individuals, or if individuals who behave aggressively are more likely to become targets of ostracism. Evidence for both directions exists (Smart Richman & Leary, 2009, p.374). Ostracism, mainly characterised as a ‘non-behaviour’, may trigger an aggressive or antisocial response, as the victim might try to gain some form of behavioural reaction, regardless of it being positive or negative. The third response to ostracism is social withdrawal or socially avoidant behaviour. This can involve two types of withdrawal: physical withdrawal, where individuals avoid and no longer engage in physical and social encounters, or psychological withdrawal, where individuals are still physically present but are psychologically distant and avoid entering meaningful relationships with others. It has been hypothesised that individuals who fear the pain of future rejection or feel uncertain about their worth and acceptability by others, resort to this coping mechanism (Vangelisti, 2001 as cited in Smart Richman & Leary, 2009, p. 376). These individuals may have doubts about their relational value and may perceive the rejection as a fault on their part. This is particularly linked to ostracism episodes that individuals perceive as embarrassing or shameful (Ferguson, Stegge & Damhuis, 1991; Tangney, Miller, Flicker & Barlow, 1996, as cited in Smart Richman & Leary, 2009, p. 377). Additionally, the perception and experience of ostracism appear to be moderated by individual differences such as age, gender, social anxiety, loneliness and self-esteem (Williams, 2007, p. 439). Researchers found that higher age weakened the impact of ostracism. They hypothesised that people might become more habituated to experiencing ostracism over time and as a result of such were less sensitive to it. Gender seemed to have an impact on the degree of compensatory behaviour employed, with females working harder and putting more efforts into collective tasks than males. Williams (2007, p. 439) found that lonely and socially anxious individuals may recover more slowly from ostracism than individuals who showed normal levels of social anxiety and loneliness. Similarly, participants who measured low in self-esteem were more negatively affected by ostracism, relative to participants who were high in self-esteem (Onoda, Okamoto, Nakashima, Nittono, Yoshimura, Yamawaki, Yamaguchi, Ura, 2010, p. 389).


The third and last stage of Williams & Zardo’s (2005) ostracism model is concerned with the long-term effects chronic or acute ostracism has on targets. Even brief episodes of ostracism cause negative emotions, negative self-perception, feelings of loneliness and distance between self and others, lower self-esteem, feelings of incompetence and unworthiness of attention, and the perception of life as less meaningful, with long-term effects including decreased coping responses, feelings of helplessness, alienation, despair, depression and suicide attempts (Williams, 2007). In Baumeister, Ciarocco, Williams, Sommer’s (2001, p. 241) study, individuals, who had been asked to write two stories about their experiences of ostracism, one where they had been the source and one in which they were the target, stated that as target they would prefer physical or verbal abuse over ostracism (referred to as ‘silent-treatment’ in the study). Participants equalled physical or verbal as an acknowledgement of their existence and stated that visible bruises would provide them with evidence of abuse that they could give to authorities, whereas the silent treatment does not leave behind any material evidence. Moreover, as Gomez, Morales, Hart, Vazquez & Swann (2011, p. 1583) suggests, individuals whose identity has merged with that of the group may experience an identity crisis following irrevocable ostracism.


This paper focuses on one specific form of ostracism, religious excommunication. Religious excommunication is, in fact, a double-edged sword, as religion serves as a major coping mechanism for ostracized individuals, yet at the same time, most religious communities practice some form of excommunication to punish religious deviance.

The idea of religion as a coping mechanism for social exclusion and rejection goes back to Freud (1927/1964) who believed that religion is comforting for people who feel socially isolated and lonely. Individuals are particularly prone to turning to religion and divine, transcendental beings in times of crisis (Pargament, 1997). The psychological necessity and function of religion for some individuals has already been acknowledged by Voltaire, who once stated that ‘Si Dieu n’existait pas, il foudrait l’inventer’ (Translation: ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’). This idea was further developed by psychologists and attachment-theorists, who perceive and study God as a substitute attachment figure (Kirkpatrick, 1998, as cited in Granqvist, 2010, p. 7). Religion can satisfy thwarted needs (see ostracism model above) of belonging, control (Ai et al., 2005, p. 785 -787) and meaningful existence and self-esteem, as it provides a shared meaning in a group context, comforts peoples’ fear of mortality (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991; Jonas & Fischer, 2006), and presents believers with a shared set of norms and clear established rules to guide behavior (Bergin, 1991).

Religiosity also provides believers with internal and external coping mechanisms in the face of adversity (McIntosh et al., 1993, Ai et al., 2005, p. 764). Internal coping mechanisms refer to how individuals cognitively process and understand external stimuli and stressors, whereas external religious coping mechanisms refer to the social support believers receive from the religious community and religious leaders. Aydin, Fischer & Frey (2010, p. 751) demonstrated across five studies involving Christian students that being ostracised led to an increase in their religious affiliation and religious coping resulted in a decrease in stress-response following ostracism. Evidence suggests that religion may serve as a protective factor for aggression, as participants who were shown a prime to remind them of their religious affiliation displayed less aggression relative to the control group, who was shown a neutral prime. Furthermore, religiosity is also associated with lower rates of suicide, anxiety, depression and an overall greater sense of well-being. In contrast to these salutary aspects, there are also a set of pathogenic and pathoplastic aspects present, such as an increased acceptance of certain types of deviant behaviors, for example strict segregation with certain communities and discriminatory actions against specific lifestyles or orientations, as well as intrapersonal pathoplastic aspects, such as stress and anxiety induced by obsessive thoughts about rules and sins (Pietkiewicz, 2014, p. 2). In fact, Pargament, Zinnbauer, Scott, Zerowin & Stanik (2003, p. 1337 – 1338) describe three coping mechanisms, which may lead individuals to experience intra- or interpersonal conflicts: putting too much emphasis on religion and the religious community and thereby neglecting other basic needs, strict adherence to faulty religious explanations and neglecting other explanations that are more fitting, and experiencing conflict with others (such as family members or friends who are of a different devotion), conflict with God, or with the self (doubts about religion, congregational rules or clergy). Thus, as the above discussion shows, religious involvement can provide benefits and disadvantages for practising members.

The current study is interested in the link between religion and ostracism, similar to studies described above, but from a perspective that differs from those studies. Namely, one in which the religious community is not a substitute for the ostracized group, but in which it is the source of ostracism.

In a religious scenario, ostracism can be used as a means to keep members obedient and devout to the cause, while discouraging them from leaving the community. Any group that exerts a high level of control over its members to keep them obedient and devout, such as by threatening them with social exclusion can be described as a ‘high-control group’.

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