Friday, 7 November 2008


Things have been frantic in the past few weeks, and blogging has gone by the by.

I was recently teaching a bunch of psychology students a social psychology class about ostracism. Ostracism occurs when a person is physically or emotionally isolated. It can occur for a variety of reasons, such as violating normal behaviour norms for a particular group or family, or for no reason at all.

In classic ostracism studies a participant is invited to join in a game of catch with two other 'participants' who are actually confederates of the experimenter. After playing catch for a few minutes the two confederates exclude the participant from the game. This leads to feelings of embarrasment, self-conciousness, and decreases self-esteem, self-efficacy, and well-being for the person being ostracised.

More recent brain-imaging studies have shown that the brain region that is activated through elevated bloodflow following ostracism is the same region that is activated when we experience real PHYSICAL pain. In other words, pain is pain according to our brain - whether the pain is caused by emotion or physical interaction.

What does this mean for parents?

A couple of important things. Firstly, the ostracism finding is particularly important for children who are suffering from bullying. This research indicates that our children's brains are responding to the emotional pain of bullying exactly the same way that they would if our children were actually being beaten. But with ostracism there are no visible bruises.

The second thing is a little more involved. As part of our class we discussed the ethical implications involved in attempting to study ostracism. No ethics committee at any university would allow ostracism studies to be conducted on children. This is because of the significant negative repercussions of ostracism. Even if the university would allow such research, I believe it would be quite a challenge to find a parent willing to allow their child to participate in research that might lead to feelings of low self-esteem, low well-being, and so on.

Despite this, as parents we often act in precisely this way. When our children violate our expectations of them it is common to see them put into 'time-out' or be told that they will be 'ignored' until they act the way we want them to.

Clearly unacceptable behaviour is unacceptable. There are less damaging ways to teach this than participating in parent-endorsed ostracism. Researchers have consistently shown that working with our children using reasoning, discussion, and gentle reminders is far more effective in producing long-term positive outcomes compared with doing things to our children (read: punishing) to 'teach' them.

Ostracism, in any form, can have particularly negative outcomes on children. No ethics committee would ever endorse its use on children. As parents, we can help our children by adopting the same approach.