Those “The Software Is Ignoring Me” Blues

ThoseSo how socially wired are humans, anyway?

Apparently, so much so that we become angry and distressed when we get rejected . . . by software.

One of our fundamental human needs, the need for relatedness is so strong that we feel depressed and anxious even when we know the people excluding us are actually just computer programs.

Kip Williams, a professor of psychology at Purdue University, studies the effects of ostracism, or being left out of a group. He’s even written a book about it. If you’ve ever been excluded by other people, you know how painful it can feel; Williams’ research shows that ostracism can cause long-lasting damage. What interests me is how sensitive we are in perceiving ostracism.

Cyberball, from
Cyberball, from

Williams developed a simple video game called Cyberball that he has used in many of his studies. The game shows two crudely drawn characters (the other players), and one small hand at the bottom of the screen (the player’s character). The three figures play a game of catch; when it is the player’s turn, he can choose which of the other two figures to send the ball to.

At some point during the game, the two upper figures begin to toss the ball only to each other, ignoring the bottom player. Not surprisingly, this is a very upsetting experience for the player. Players feel sad and angry. Someone is ignoring them, and for no good reason.

Where it gets intriguing for me is that people have this same reaction even when they know the other two players are automated. We are so sensitive to social rejection that it hurts even when we know it is truly non-reflective of our own value.

That's one way to cope with ostracism.
That’s one way to cope with ostracism.

Studies show that people even feel hurt when they’re rejected by people they probably don’t want to be accepted by. For example, in one study, African-American participants were sad and angry when rejected by KKK members (again in the Cyberball game). The experience of being ostracized by members of a dislike group intensified negative feelings toward the group, but still hurt on a personal level.

Sometimes we may not be as kind as we could be to strangers, such as service providers or fellow travelers, because it’s so easy to think our behavior doesn’t matter to them. Williams’ research shows that the way we treat others might have a bigger effect than we think. Most of us aren’t usually in a position to actually ostracize other people, particularly people we don’t know well, but we are in a position to acknowledge them, to see them and help fulfill that need for relatedness just a little bit.