Sally Singer Horwatt, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist 

 

Ostracism 

June 4, 1999 

This article is one of a series of radio spots prepared by Sally Singer Horwatt, Ph.D. for 
WAGE 1200 AM RADIO

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Happiness in life is strongly related to having some close  
personal relationships.  Research suggests that it does not seem to make a great deal of difference what sort of relationship one has, but the absence of close social bonds is strongly linked to depression, unhappiness and other troubles.  Social isolation is compatible with high levels of happiness.  The strongest emotions people experience, both positive and negative, are linked to belongingness.  
  
     This explains the power of ostracism as a means of social control.  Ostracism - a.k.a. the silent treatment - is the actions of individuals or groups that ignore, exclude or reject others. Ostracism is intended to deprive the target of the sense of belonging.  It has been called "social death."  
  
     There are several motives for ostracism: punishment for the violation of a social norm or rule is one.  Oblivious ostracism occurs when one does not recognize another's existence, but the ostracism is not designed as a punishment.  An unfortunate, but frequent example of oblivious ostracism is when a group of men and a woman are talking and the woman makes a point which is ignored.  Later in the conversation, a man makes the same point, and everybody agrees with him.  Defensive ostracism occurs when one ignores others in anticipation of rejection.  Prescribed ostracism occurs when you are not expected to acknowledge the presence of others - as for example, sharing a seat on a bus.  
  
     The causes of ostracism have been analyzed by investigators Williams and Zadro in terms of the sources of ostracism, the targets of ostracism and the situations of ostracism.  For example, there are differences in ostracizers.  Some people give the silent treatment or leave the scene as a way of controlling their anger or, perhaps, preventing violence.  Others use the silent treatment because they are not adept at more advanced forms of interpersonal conflict. Targets of ostracism frequently  
violate social conventions with insensitivity, chronic  
complaining and loudness.  Social situations sometimes favor the use of ostracism.  Giving your spouse the silent treatment is the only socially acceptable means of "fighting" with your partner in public.  
  
     Short-term, the person who is ostracized generally tries to regain a sense of belonging, control and self-esteem.  They do this by setting up new bonds with others or by doing something to increase self-esteem. Surprisingly, they frequently work to retain membership in the group.  Long term, however, ostracism can lead to detrimental psychological and health-related consequences - even suicide and, in some cases, homicide.  
  
     As you might expect, several studies have been done on 
ostracism.  Here are some of the things we know: Ostracism is most self-destructive when used as a defense against anticipated rejection.  There, the person can never win.  Oblivious ostracism leads to greater threats to sense of belonging, self-esteem than punitive ostracism designed as punishment.  The closer the relationship between the target and the ostracizer, the greater the threat to self-esteem and belonging.  The greatest threat occurs when ostracized by a love relationship partner compared to a relative, friend or stranger.  
  
     People low in self-esteem are more likely to ostracize, but they appear to use it as a manipulative tactic rather than true disengagement.  High self-esteem individuals are more likely to ostracize to terminate an unwanted relationship.  Ironically, people with high self-esteem are more likely than those with low self-esteem to terminate a relationship with partners who ostracize them.  
  
     Effects of long term ostracism are not purely psychological. Many targets state that they develop health problems such as migraine, heart palpitations and increased asthma attacks.  For many targets, ostracism goes hand in hand with physical or verbal abuse, the they report that the silent treatment is the most aversive.  
  
     In one study, all targets of ostracism agreed to be  
interviewed in the hope that they could learn of a remedy to stop it.  
  
     In my experience working with couples and families,  
ostracism is the single, most destructive tactic employed...worse even then affairs.  It, effectively, terminates the relationship, giving the other no sense of parity or control.  in any human relationship where partners are honest there is always conflict. A committed relationship is one in which the partners agree to continue to work it out until, at the very least, they agree to disagree.  Ostracism makes this impossible.  It makes honesty impossible.  It makes self-esteem impossible. Sometimes, the ostracizer finds he cannot stop.  
  
     The effectiveness of ostracism lies in its superior capacity to terminate relationships. 

More radio spots:

CANCER
OSTRACISM
ROAD RAGE
VIOLENCE
LOVE
WAGE 1200 AM
 

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