When I think back to the social drama of high school— cold scowls of indifference, deflecting insults with nervous laughter, the dizziness I felt when an old friend abandoned me—I can still feel the kind of paralysis it induced then. The effect was often disabling: stuttering speech, action, and thought. I always wished I could come up with some quick retort to an insult or rise above it, but instead I felt helpless.
A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, "Social Exclusion Decreases Prosocial Behavior," helps me—and, I imagine, many others–understand this disabling phenomenon. The authors found that when individuals are excluded from a group they do not respond emotionally, as we may expect. Rather, to cope with exclusion, they may slip into an unemotional state. By disconnecting from their emotions, rejected individuals protect themselves from distress.
Yet however protective this emotional disconnect might be, there are also a few less desirable effects. In addition to helping one adapt to her environment, emotion is "a tool for interpersonal understanding," write the authors. It's our emotions that help us connect to another person's emotional state. Conversely, however, as one disconnects from her emotion while being excluded, she is unable to empathize with other people.
What impact does this empathic disconnection have on the excluded person's socialization? Surely if one lacks empathic emotion, it seems she will be less concerned with social connection. Indeed, researchers found that socially excluded individuals were less likely to act pro-socially–that is, to positively affect other people through helping behavior or cooperation.
These findings illustrate the effects of exclusion on both a personal and social level, from emotional numbness to social isolation. It provides insight into how, at times, the effects of rejection are often more profound than we can possibly grasp in the moment. From this standpoint, it is not difficult to imagine why many people remain isolated throughout life, not realizing how an early rejection or two could start a vicious cycle of solitude.