Ostracism means being ignored and excluded. Like bullying, ostracism causes pain and distress. Its targets either attempt compensatory behavior, aimed at being likeable and included, or they retaliate, provoke, and aggress. Qualitative interviews suggest that frequent exposures to ostracism make targets become depressed, exhibit helplessness, and engage in suicidal ideation and/or attempts. Unlike bullying, ostracism need not be persistent or unwanted, is difficult to monitor and penalize, and negatively affects basic human needs for acknowledgment and meaning. Research on ostracism reveals its characteristics, compares its consequences with being bullied, and suggests implications for public policy.
Ostracism is more insidious than bullying. People can ostracize others unnoticed and with relative impunity. Ostracism hurts as much or more than bullying, yet because it is characterized by the absence of attention and acknowledgment, it is difficult to monitor and regulate (Williams, 2001). In addition, individuals who endure long-term exposure to ostracism in schools (Saylor et al., 2012; Saylor et al., 2013) and the workplace (O’Reilly, Robinson, Banki, & Berdahl, 2014) show more severe downstream consequences than they do to bullying.
Examining real-world ostracism and bullying, a recent U.K. study indicates ostracism’s power. A survey on bullying among 35,000 students between the ages of 11 and 18 (Benton, 2011) suggests that the most emotionally damaging type of bullying is “being left out.” Pitting ostracism and bullying against one another, in an effort to determine which is worse, researchers administered the Bullying and Ostracism Screening Scale (BOSS; Saylor et al., 2012) to 1,076 children averaging 12.6 years of age (Carpenter, Nida, Saylor, & Taylor, 2012). Children who had been ostracized displayed significantly greater need-threat than children who had been bullied. Also without exception, children who had experienced neither bullying nor ostracism had the lowest levels of need-threat, whereas those who had experienced both consistently reported the highest levels of threat—suggesting ostracism and bullying each contribute independently.