Years ago, the psychologist Professor Kip Williams had a memorable, and as it turned out, consequential, experience one afternoon during a picnic. He was kicking back with his dog Michelob, near a public lake in Des Moines, Iowa, when a Frisbee landed beside them. Kip looked up to see two men waiting for it to be thrown back. “So I got up and threw it to them,” he told me. “And I was going to sit down again but, to my surprise, they threw it back to me. We just started throwing the Frisbee to each other.”
The game continued happily for a while, but then something banal and terrible took place. “They just stopped throwing to me,” he said. “They didn’t say anything. They just started looking at each other and not at me.” Williams was left just standing there, in front of Michelob, feeling awful. “I was amazed at how powerful this fairly minimal experience of ostracism was. I felt it in a visceral way. I felt it in my gut. I hurt.”
What the men didn’t know was that Williams was a social scientist who’d been looking for a way to study ostracism. They’d given him a brilliant idea. He decided to re-create the situation in the lab: He’d record what happened when a person was engaged by two strangers in a catch game before suddenly being frozen out. “It had an extraordinary impact on them,” he told me. “It affected their self-esteem, their sense of control over their environment and what we call their ‘meaningful existence,’ which is whether someone feels acknowledged or invisible. It also affected their anger and their sadness.” Williams observed some of these experiments through a one-way mirror. “They were so powerful I had trouble watching.”
All this undermines the folk truth that “names can never hurt me.” They can, and they do. “People say social pain ‘is all in your head’ and, indeed, it is,” said Williams, “because that’s where you register both physical and social pain.” (Some researchers, in fact, believe they actually use the same brain networks but, at the time of writing, a dispute has broken out in academia as to the extent of the overlap.) And social pain can be no less painful. “Sometimes we’d prefer to experience physical pain than the breakdown of a relationship,” Dr. Giorgia Silani of Italy’s International School for Advanced Studies told me. “You feel that kind of pain in your body. It’s like your body is getting sick. This is what we’re picking up.” Her team ran a series of studies using ostracized catch players in a brain scanner, except this time they were also given electric shocks, so that a comparison could be made between them. “We found social pain could be as strongly felt as physical pain.”
There are many different kinds of social pain: embarrassment, betrayal, bereavement, insult, exclusion by a group or individual, loneliness, heartbreak. What they have in common is rejection. Ostracism is a capital assault on the self, sometimes described as “psychological death.” (It’s not for no reason that St. Benedict considered “the cauterizing iron of excommunication” the ultimate punishment for wayward monks.) The reason we’ve evolved to experience it with such agony is thought to go back to when we roamed the planet in vulnerable tribes. “The tribe is providing you with protection and with food and water,” said Silani. “To hunt, you need maybe five or six people. You can’t do it by yourself.” If you were rejected by the group, back then, it would very probably mean death.
This is perhaps why social pain developed: It was an alarm system that told you something was wrong in your social life and that you needed to take urgent action. In this respect, it’s no different from physical pain, which works as an alarm system that tells you not to touch an open wound, say, or walk on a broken ankle. Pain is information. “There are people born without the ability to experience physical pain,” said Williams. “They typically die by the time they’re in their mid-20s.” Today, some researchers believe social isolation to be so bad for the human machine that it can rival smoking as a mortality risk.
But social pain is more than just an alarm for ourselves. We also experience it when we see someone else being ostracized. Silani worked on a series of studies that examined people’s responses to watching another be excluded. “What we saw was a reactivation of the area that we observed in the first-person experience of pain,” she says. “So it was just as painful to watch the experience happening to someone else as it was to experience it yourself.’ This, of course, is something we’d call “empathy.” It’s argued that we feel pain on behalf of others because in order to keep tribal life ticking over, we’d have to have been motivated to punish those who were treating others badly. “In a social environment, if you observe unfairness, you’d probably try to punish that kind of behavior so it doesn’t happen again,” she said.
But we don’t feel empathy for just anyone. Professor James Coan at the University of Virginia has suggested that we only tend to experience it on behalf of people who are members of our in-group. His team reported that when participants in an fMRI scanner believed a friend was about to receive an electric shock, brain regions that are typically involved in threat response became more active, just as they did in Giorgia’s tests. But when that threat was made to a stranger, only minimal activity was observed.
Other studies, by researchers at China’s Shenzhen University, have indicated that we can struggle to feel empathy for those who we think of as having a higher status than us. This effect, of course, is made manifest in the fact that we often feel entitled to be extremely bullying and unfair to politicians, CEOs, and celebrities who are, after all, no less human than we are.
Once moral outrage is triggered, so is our thirst for revenge. Our use of ostracism as a weapon of assault is with us as much today as it’s always been, of course, and the science of social pain suggests it can sometimes feel hardly less brutal than the physical variety. “Anthropologists think ostracism was the foundation of civilization, because fear of it keeps you in line,” said Kip. “But taken too far, it makes everybody too similar to each other. It penalizes diversity and creativity. You end up wanting to get along to such an extreme that you fear expressing anything unique.” In today’s culture, this effect can be seen often in social media, newspapers and on university campuses. “You see it on both sides, from the Right and Left. There are strong pressures to conform and an immediate response to disrupt or to ostracize people who disagree.”
What the science of social pain begins to reveal is the dark error at the heart of individualism. We’re a species so highly social that psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt calls us “10 percent bee.” We evolved to thrive in communities. We need each other, and it hurts when that need isn’t met.
Adapted from Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us by Will Storr. Copyright © 2018 by Will Storr. Published by arrangement with The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.