I think that they excluded me because they just judge people by the outside, but those people are wrong. You should get to know people more.
~Teen participant in study
Getting picked and being included are golden. It's one Playground Lesson we learn early and often.
We're just beginning to learn, however, the extent of how childhood rejection affects those who are chronically rejected. What happens to kids who experience being left out on a daily basis? They are flying under the radar of their teachers and parents, even as their growing brains are being rearranged each time they are told, "You can't play."
It's a basic feature of our human experience to feel soothed in the presence of close others and distressed when left out. Recently, thanks to new studies with brain imaging, we're learning more about the painful bio-neurological effects of social rejection. Rejection not only hurts, the brain's physical pain centers light up like candles! The same area of the brain that lights up during physical pain (anterior cingulated cortex) is active during social exclusion. Apparently, our evolutionary social attachment system (keeping the young near their caregivers) has, over time, piggybacked onto the human physical pain system—in order to promote species survival. Even the expectancy of rejection lights up pain centers in our brain.
It turns out that our brains may also be wired to the rejection pain of other people. Rejection may hurt our brains, even when we're just watching it happen to someone else. In one recent study, findings indicated that we physically feel the pain of someone else's ostracism as our own.
Take these findings from scholars into your neighborhood, onto your block. Failing to receive a nod of recognition in the hallways, hearing about a party of friends to which we were not invited, watching colleagues rush off to lunch without us—still hurts. We're adults, but we still wince and wonder. In a child's world, it's worse. Childhood is embedded in groups. Kids are born into a family group, learn in classroom groups, socialize and learn the ropes in play groups, compete in teams, identify territorially with neighborhood groups, and experiment with social structures in cliques. Yet, a hidden culture of social cruelty continues to thrive in every peer group. Tribes.
We all have tribal minds. Our brains continually sort people out, making quick decisions about who belongs with whom and what that belonging means. Throughout our lives, we will be sorting people into categories of Us and Them. Yet, being rejected will always hurt. It's worth thinking about a little more.
• Eisenberg, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(7), 294-300.
• SunWolf, & Leets, L. (2004). Being left out: Rejecting outsiders and communicating group boundaries in childhood and adolescent peer groups. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 32(3), 195-223.
• SunWolf, & Leets, L. (2003). Communication paralysis during peer group exclusion: Social dynamics that prevent children and adolescents from expressing disagreement. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 22, 355-384.
• Wesselmann, E. D., Bagg, D., & Williams, K. D. (2009). “I feel your pain”: The effects of ostracism on the ostracism detection system. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 1308-1311.