2012 USA Science & Engineering Festival

The Science of Inclusion and Exclusion

Why Do We Want to Be Included?

As humans, it's in our nature to want to belong to a group, whether that group is a family, a team, or a select set of friends. That'susa_science.jpg because being part of a group is one way early humans survived. We worked together to find food and shelter and to protect ourselves from predators. And we carry that instinct, what we call a survival instinct, with us to this day. So, when we're excluded, or isolated, it can be scary--and it can hurt.

Being excluded or isolated is also known as ostracism. It can happen to anyone at any age. Whether we're young, old, or somewhere in between being excluded feels bad, at least for a little while. 

But thanks to psychological scientists, who study how people think, feel, and behave, we now know more about the physical and emotional effects of exclusion than ever before. Scientists gain understanding of ideas by bringing real-world behavior, like exclusion, into their labs. Then, they take what they've learned in their labs back into the world, with the aim of making life better for others. 

And that's important because understanding ostracism can help us lessen the pain we feel when it happens to us, or it can help us help someone else who is feeling excluded.

I Include!

Want to include others, but don't know how to start? Here are some useful ways to get started:

  • Sitting with a new friend at lunch.
  • Telling someone new about your favorite book.
  • Smiling at someone who may need it.
  • Treating others as you want to be treated.
  • Talking to a shy student during a break.
  • Being kind to someone you don't know.
  • Listening to others with your full attention.
  • Sharing common interests with a new kid.
  • Talking positively about others.
  • Acting like a friend to everyone at school.

How Do Scientists Study Ostracism?

Often scientists become fascinated about a science topic because they have seen or experienced something that interests them. They wonder why people or the earth or the planets are the way they are, and they want to study them to know more. In fact, a great deal of the research on exclusion or ostracism was the result of a scientist's (Dr. Kip Williams) experience when he was relaxing in the park with his dog. He was hit in the back with a Frisbee, and after throwing the Frisbee back to two people who were playing, they involved him in the game. Then, all of a sudden, they excluded him, and he was surprised at how bad he felt. It made him inquisitive so he decided to study it.

The scientist created an experiment in the lab that would allow him to observe how people would behave in various situations. In scientific language, he could develop a hypothesis or proposed explanation; test it under controlled conditions of the lab instead of the highly complex world; compare different scenarios or conditions; and measure people's responses in each situation. Using statistics, he compared different conditions, analyzed the results, and drew some conclusions. Other scientists then built on his research to test new ideas. Through this process, science can help us understand how people think, feel, and behave so that we can improve things for individuals and society.

What Happened at the USA Science and Engineering Festival?

At the 2012 science festival, the FABBS Foundation and Howard University joined together to show kids how the topic of ostracism is studied and why it’s important to know about it. At Howard University, faculty and graduate students are studying many different factors relating to how people feel when they are excluded. The FABBS Foundation was formed to help educate people about research such as this, so we partnered with Howard University for the festival.


At the science festival, researchers showed kids, through a brief simulation, how an experiment might be conducted in the lab – in other words, how they try to bring the real world and the study of exclusion into the lab. One way is to use a face-to-face ball tossing game; another way is to have people participate in an on-line ball-tossing game (called Cyberball). Through the process of including, excluding, and including participants–and measuring how they feel at various stages–researchers are learning that exclusion, even in simple situations, can lead to powerful emotions. 

We now know that:

  • People report being ostracized frequently, on average almost once a day.
  • People can feel the effects of ostracism even if it’s performed by strangers, people that you might not like, or even computers.
  • A short period of ostracism can lead to a bad mood, anger, and decreased feelings of belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaning in life. Over a longer period, it can lead to more serious issues, and sometimes kids and adults will need help to cope.
  • The effects of ostracism are seen in the brain. Certain neural regions in the brain (called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) that are active when people experience physical pain are also active when people feel social pain. In addition, there is increased activity in another part of the brain (called the right ventral prefrontal cortex) when people are evaluating the unpleasant emotion or bad feeling.
  • Although both physical pain and social pain can be intense, physical pain tends to be shorter. Social pain can last a very long time, maybe forever, because people can relive it.
  • Once kids are ostracized, they will work harder to belong, at least up to a point. But if the ostracism lasts a long time, kids may lash out and need help from an adult.

We want kids to feel like they belong, so kids and adults need to make sure that all kids feel included. How can you make other kids feel included? Tell Akeem what you are doing to make other kids feel like they belong!

And if you see someone who is being ostracized, encourage him or her to discuss the situation with a trusted adult such as a parent, teacher, or close friend. Most adults know what it’s like to be excluded. 

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Special Thanks!

FABBS Foundation thanks Dr. Lloyd Ren Sloan, Dr. Alison Dingwall, graduate student Candice Wallace, and Howard University psychology student volunteers Dominique Hubbard, Yolanda Murphy, Janea Reed, and Janene Cielto for sharing their work with the public.  Their research on ostracism and their volunteer efforts help us better understand each other and ourselves.  


Resources for Educators

Resources for Parents

Additional Reading

Reactions to Discrimination, Stigmatization, Ostracism, and Other Forms of Interpersonal Rejection: 
A Multimotive Model »
Psychological Review

Social Rejection Shares Somatosensory Representations with Physical Pain »
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

What Can Be Done About School Bullying? Linking Research to Educational Practice »
American Educational Research Association
Educational Researcher

Social Psychology Organizations 

FABBS Foundation would like to recognize the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. These scientific societies focus on social psychology, the area of science displayed at this year's booth.

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