Tag Archives: ostracism

Ostracism and School Shootings: What’s the Connection?

By: Megan Birney

In California today a teacher became yet another victim of gun violence in U.S. schools. According to initial reports, the teacher was shot by a student who he’d had an argument with earlier in the day. After years of reading about these horrific school shootings (Wikipedia lists over 45 of these incidents in the last 5 years), many of us are plagued by the following question: Why does this keep happening?

While there is little doubt that school shootings are the result of many complex factors, some research suggests that a combination of feeling ostracized and not in control could lead individuals to act overly aggressive. Reacting to years of ostracism has consistently been cited as a possible motive in the massacres at both Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. Yet Williams (2007) points out that many individuals who experience ostracism respond by increasing the attention they pay to others and consciously trying to please those around them. It seems, then, that ostracized individuals tend to deal with the pain of ostracism in one of two ways: some become more passive while others become more aggressive.

So what determines how an ostracized person reacts? Williams (2007) suggests that the aggression that sometimes follows ostracism may be the individual’s attempt to restore a sense of control over their environment. Because ostracized individuals often feel invisible, acting out in aggressive ways forces others to notice and acknowledge them.  Aggression in this case may be the only way the individual is able to reclaim a sense of control over their environment.

While we continue to come to grips with the tragedy of school shootings, it may be worth keeping these ideas in mind. If we want to stop these acts of violence, we may want to take a closer look at how ostracism impacts other areas of the ostracized person’s life.

Further Reading:

Vocational school teacher shot by student in Los Angeles


Williams, K.D. (2007). Ostracism: The kiss of social death. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1, 236-237.

Winning Ali’s Heart: How men on The Bachelorette use gossip to improve their status



By Erica Zaiser

If you have been watching the new season of reality show The Bachelorette(don’t lie, I am sure you have), you know that in just a few episodes it has become clear that this season is rife with drama for the male contestants vying for Ali Fedotowsky’s attention. Much of the show relies on gossip about other contestants to the camera. Recently, gossiping about male rivals to Ali herself has been more evident. Furthermore, alliances are being formed with certain contestants being ostracized from the group because of damaging stories regarding their personal motives being spread through between-contestant gossip.

Evolutionary psychologists have long been interested in the evolutionary purpose of spreading gossip. Some researchers suggest that it may be a strategy for improving one’s status. In one study, researchers looked at the type of gossip people are more likely to spread and to whom. Not surprisingly negative stories are more likely to be spread when they are about rivals but positive stories are more for allies. You are least likely to spread a positive story about a rival and men are more likely to gossip with romantic partners than male friends. Also, the researchers found that certain information (sex and health topics in particular) about romantic partners is considered more worth “spreading ” than other types of gossip. Negative and particularly damaging information was considered the most juicy gossip when it concerned same-sex rivals (for both genders). According to the researchers, through gossip, we build our alliances and knock down our competition by spreading negative information about our rivals and building up our own “team’s” reputation by promoting positive stories about friends.

So, the men on the Bachelorette are not just gossiping for the entertainment value of reality TV. Instead, they are using gossip to promote their own agenda with the other men (by creating alliances which will probably allow them more access to future gossip). Then they use gossip to improve their chances with Ali by letting her in on all the dirty news about the competition.

Read More: Who Do We Tell and Whom Do We Tell On? The Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2007

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Internet Avengers

By Erica Zaiser

In China, the Internet has provided a new kind of medium for vigilantes to work together to dole out punishments to perceived offenders. This “human-flesh search engine”, as an article in the New York Times calls it, doesn’t work like a conventional Internet search. Instead, it is a vast network of online users who work together to reveal the location and personal details of people who the users feel have violated a norm. In one example, Internet users from all over China worked together to collect the personal data of a woman who posted a video on the internet of her stomping a kitten to death under her spiked heels.  After discovering her location, the vast network of users encouraged everyone who came in contact to her to assist in driving her out-of-town, ruining her business, and destroying her life. The article describes a number of examples of offenders (accused of committing a wide variety of perceived “crimes”) all being punished severely through this network and often being unable to return to work, their homes, or normal life after the “search engine” finds “justice”.

Although this type of mass justice seeking behaviour is relatively unstudied, it has interesting implications for a number of research areas like social identity, bullying behavior, collective action, social rejection, and anger and aggression. When people witness behavior that violates norms and invokes moral outrage, they often desire justice. According to social psychologists, there are different types of justice people can seek when they witness a crime, they include retributive justice (punishment for the offender) and compensatory justice (compensation – money and apology etc. for the victim). Interestingly, in this Chinese human network, the justice form doled out by online avengers is always a harsh punishment for the offender. Nobody in the network is encouraging others to seek compensation for the victims.

In line with this, one set of studies found that when people “observe” a crime, but are not close to the victim, they prefer a retributive type of justice to a compensatory type. The less close the bystander is to the victim, the more they prefer punishment to compensation. When you are dealing with an online network of avengers who likely don’t even know each other, much less the victim, its easy to see how this punishment response could escalate as the networks extends to more distant users. Furthermore, given that it’s all online, there is an added sense of anonymity for the justice seekers. All of these aspects make the “human search engine” an interesting phenomenon for social psychologists to unravel.

Read More: Retributive versus compensatory justice: Observers’ preference for punishing in response to criminal offenses

Money can’t buy friends but it may help you cope without them


By Erica Zaiser

With the recent economic crisis many may be finding it harder to keep up with the Joneses. Undoubtedly, losing a job and its potential impact on one’s finances is highly stressful in and of itself, but many people may feel added pressure from the need to maintain their social status despite economic loss.

People will go to great lengths to retain their place in a group because being socially ostracized can be a highly stressful and often traumatic experience. Ostracism has been linked to a number of psychological responses as well as actually physical pain.  The bad news is that, according to a recent study, when people feel socially ostracized their desire for money only increases because money represents power and status (Zhou, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2009). The good news is that the same research suggests that just the simple act of counting money (as opposed to blank paper) can lessen the negative feelings associated with social exclusion, even when it is someone else’s money. Even more, counting money can actually lessen perceptions of physical pain. Conversely, when people are reminded of having spent or losing money they report feeling higher levels of mental distress as well as physical pain.

One explanation for this is that counting money reminds us of money, which is a potential social resource for coping and gaining status. Thus, as we lose friends we want to increase our financial resources and conversely, as we lose financial security we are more distraught by losing friends. In this way financial and social resources may act as a type of psychological currency that allows you to “buy” confidence and feelings of efficacy, which are linked to both psychological and physical pain.

So during these hard financial times, if you find you can no longer keep up with the Joneses financially, you may want to try being friends with them instead.

square-eye Read more about the effects of ostracism:  Williams, K.D. (2007). Ostracism: The kiss of social death. Social and Personality Compass1, 236–247.

Zhou, Xinyue, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Roy F. Baumeister (2009), “The Symbolic Power of
Money: Reminders of Money Alter Social Distress and Physical Pain,” Psychological

square-eye Zhou, X. , Vohs K. D., Baumeister, R. (2009). The symbolic power of money: Reminders of money alter social distress and physical  pain, Psychological Science, 20, 700-706.

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Ouch! Is this what asylum feels like?

Iraqi_boys_giving_peace_signUday Hattem al-Ghanimi represents a growing population of Iraqis who have sought political asylum and resettled in the United States after the Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003. However, as the New York Times reported on Thursday, like many accomplished immigrants from other countries, Uday and his family have not been met with the welcome and opportunity for which they had hoped or were led to expect. With the wounds of war still tender, Iraqis are struggling to support themselves and their families as they face alienation in the job market and ostracism from society.

A social psychological perspective of the Iraqi experience in the United States elucidates the hardships that Iraqis are facing. Williams (1997, 2007) emphasized the profound negative effects of ostracism on individuals. Five minutes of ostracism due to exclusion from a ball-tossing game resulted in decreased self-esteem and feelings of helplessness, among other negative outcomes. Such negative outcomes are exacerbated with long-term ostracism. Williams notes that the effects of ostracism are initially felt much like physical pain, possibly reflecting overlapping neural circuitry. It seems Iraqis may have traded potential pain due to warfare for certain pain due to ostracism.

square-eye The New York Times: Iraqi Immigrants Face Lonely Struggle in U.S.

square-eye Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism: The kiss of social death.