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Being Mean to Others Can Backfire

Being Mean to Others Can Backfire A new study discovers that when one does things to purposely shun or banish others, they actually end up being equally distressed by the experience.

“In real life and in academic studies, we tend to focus on the harm done to victims in cases of social aggression,” said co-author Dr. Richard Ryan, professor of clinical and social psychology at the University of Rochester. “This study shows that when people bend to pressure to exclude others, they also pay a steep personal cost. Their distress is different from the person excluded, but no less intense.”

Investigators wanted to learn the source of the distress among the perpetrators. They discovered that complying with instructions to exclude another person leads most people to feel shame and guilt, along with a diminished sense of autonomy, said graduate student and co-autor Nicole Legate.

The results also showed that inflicting social pain makes people feel less connected to others.

“We are social animals at heart,” said Legate. “We typically are empathetic and avoid harming others unless we feel threatened.”

The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, point to the hidden price of going along with demands to exclude individuals based on social stigmas, such as being gay.  The study also provides insight into the harm to both parties in cases of social bullying.

To capture the dual dynamics of social rejection, the researchers turned to Cyberball, an online game developed to study ostracism.

To play the game, each participant tossed a ball with two other “players.” Then, the participant is led to believe that the other players are controlled by real people from offsite computers.

In fact, the virtual players are part of the experiment and are pre-programmed to either play fair (share the ball equally) or play mean (exclude one player after initially sharing the ball twice).

The researchers randomly assigned 152 undergraduates to one of four game scenarios.

In the “ostracizer” group, one of the virtual players was programmed to exclude the other virtual player and the study participant was instructed to exclude the same player. In a second set-up, the tables were turned.

This time the pre-programmed players froze out the study participant. The study participant, who read instructions to throw the ball to other players, was left empty-handed for most of the game, watching the ball pass back and forth, unable to join in.

Before and following the online game, participants completed the same 20-item survey to assess their mood as well as their sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Investigators say the study findings were consistent with earlier research on ostracism — that being shunned, even by faceless strangers in a computer game — was upsetting and lowered participant’s mood.

“Although there are no visible scars, ostracism has been shown to activate the same neural pathways as physical pain,” said Ryan. But complying with instructions to exclude others was equally disheartening, the data shows, albeit for different reasons.

This study suggests that the psychological costs of rejecting others is linked primarily to the thwarting of autonomy and relatedness.

Study authors believe this finding supports the theory of self-determination, which asserts that people across cultures have basic human needs for independence, competence, and relatedness and meeting these hard-wired needs leads to greater happiness and psychological growth.

The researchers also tested the separate effects of simply following instructions that did not involve ostracizing others.

Students directed to toss the ball equally to all players reported feeling less freedom than the “neutral” group that was allowed to play the game as they choose. However, neither of these latter groups experienced the distress evidenced by players who complied in excluding others.

These new experiments build on the classic psychological theory that suggests people are willing to inflict pain on others when instructed to by an authority. As in prior studies, only a small number of the participants in this current research refused to snub the other player.

The authors suggest that future investigations could explore the differences between individuals who comply with and those who defy pressure to harm others.

Source: University of Rochester

Being Mean to Others Can Backfire

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Being Mean to Others Can Backfire. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 6 Mar 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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