The Social Death Psychology: Understanding Responses and Rejection

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Three Dominating Theories of Ostracism and Social Death
  • Empirical Findings on Response to Social Death
  • Typical Responses to Threat in Social Environment
  • Conclusion


In the article ‘Ostracism’ (2007) the author Williams reviews the literature of the past decade on ostracism, social death, and rejection. While these three terms have slightly different definitions, the author uses them interchangeably. All three terms refer to being ignored, excluded or rejected either explicitly or implicitly. Since social death has been around for a long time the author introduces the evolutionary approach to ostracism. According to this perspective groups have benefited from ostracism through an increase in cohesiveness. Simultaneously an ostracism-detection system coevolved which allowed individuals to cope with ostracism.

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Three Dominating Theories of Ostracism and Social Death

Williams then introduces the three dominating theories of ostracism and social death. The first theory consists of a three-part sequence of responding to ostracism. It begins with a reflexive response which is followed by a threat to an individual’s needs and ends with a reflective stage. While the reflexive response occurs automatically, the reflective response takes many things into account to reinstate the most threatened need. The main four needs are identified as belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence. Depending on which needs are threatened most, the response is either more prosocial or antisocial. The second theory focuses on the need to belong and arguments that a social monitoring system exits that motivates the individual to restore the balance when needed. The third theory states that social death leads to emotional numbness or indifference and impairs self-regulation. This would explain the occurrence of aggression following an experience of ostracism.

Empirical Findings on Response to Social Death

Based on these three theories Williams reviews the empirical findings regarding how individuals respond during the three stages (reflexive, reflective, and acceptance). He also considers the influence of both individual and situational differences on the reflexive and reflective reactions. The findings for the reflexive stage are divided into the physiological responses and self-reported levels of distress. Past research found that social death cooccurs with increased blood pressure and increased cortisol level. At the same time, it is associated with increased activity of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the right ventral prefrontal cortex. The dACC is an area generally activated by physical pain whereas the second area is involved in moderating pain. Regarding the self-reported distress levels, there is correlational evidence for reduced self-esteem, sense of belonging, control and meaningful existence after exposure to ostracism. The higher the level of ostracism, the higher the reported distress. At the same time, some studies found no effect on mood which supports the second theory. What research also yielded is that individual and situational difference generally do not moderate the effect of ostracism during the first stage.

Typical Responses to Threat in Social Environment

The opposite is true for the second and reflective stage, where both individual and situation differences play a role. Firstly, Williams identifies four typical responses to threat: fight, flight, free or tend-and-befriend. One component that plays a role in choosing a response is rejection sensitivity (RS) which manifests in a higher likelihood to engage in violent behaviour (fight) but also to avoid social situations that could lead to rejection (flight). Other influential factors are culture, self-esteem, social anxiety and gender. Regarding gender, research showed that women are more likely to overcompensate after ostracism, focus on prosocial actions and seek fault with themselves (tend-and-befriend). Men, on the contrary, often chose to engage in social loafing and blame others.

Other findings again support the second theory: Individuals report depression-like symptoms such as lethargy and flat emotions after exposure to social death and prefer the freeze response to avoid harming one’s relationship with a group. Lastly, in the third stage which occurs under long-term social death individuals tend to accept the exclusions and the accompanying pain and emotions. A link has been established between long-term ostracism and depression.


The findings presented by Williams show that individuals cope differently with the pain caused by social death and various reactions are possible. One example of that are the contrasting findings regarding prosocial and antisocial behaviour. In some cases, ostracism leads to prosocial behaviour to avoid further exclusion. In other cases, ostracism has been causally linked to a decrease in prosocial behaviour and an increase in provocation, derogation and aggression. When including the four needs, two theories can be derived. When belonging and self-esteem are particularly threatened, the likelihood of a prosocial response is increased. When control and meaningful existence are particularly threatened, the likelihood of a antisocial response is increased. In this case the desire to be noticed might overcome the desire to be liked and individuals might view antisocial behaviour as the quickest way achieve this. With long-term ostracism individuals often feel helpless which explains the link to antisocial behavior and the effort to gain back control. To conclude, the author points out that more research is needed to understand what other factors influence individuals to behave prosocially or antisocially after ostracism whether there are successful coping strategies.       

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