Oct. 8, 2014

'Involuntary excluders' aren't always in cahoots

With a windfall pair of tickets to the Knicks game, Jerry picks Elaine to accompany him – not you.

Would you blame Jerry for leaving you out? Would you suspect collusion on Elaine’s part, and expect her to leave you out the next time, too?  Or simply say, “Nuts to both of them!” and watch the game from home?

“Surprisingly, most people not only blame the person doing the excluding, but also blame the one who was included by the excluder – even if this person does absolutely nothing,” says Cornell psychologist Vivian Zayas, who studies the Involuntary Excluder Effect (IEE).

“We are programmed by eons of evolution to respond reflexively when we think we’re being left out of an exclusive group. The fictional Elaine never was in cahoots with Jerry,” Zayas continues. “Our immediate, perhaps irrational response is to view the person who is included as being in cahoots with the excluder and as an excluder, too.”

Laboratory experiments performed by Zayas, an associate professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and by Clayton R. Critcher, Ph.D. ’10, now on the Haas School of Business faculty at University of California, Berkeley, primarily involved college students who earned extra course credit or payment for their efforts. Results are detailed in a September report published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “The Involuntary Excluder Effect: Those Included by an Excluder Are Seen as Exclusive Themselves.”

Zayas and Critcher say they demonstrated “that those unwittingly drawn into an act of exclusion are seen as excluders,” the involuntary excluder effect.

The psychologists say this is “how people make sense of an ambiguous social exclusion dynamic.” People “are quick to see included persons as though they are excluders themselves,” the psychologists write. “Included individuals are seen as belonging to an exclusive alliance with the excluder, as liking the excluder more than the rejected and as likely to perpetuate future exclusion against the rejected.”

And that’s a problem for the unwitting Elaine – and maybe for you, too, Zayas says: “You are likely to begin interacting with Elaine in a cautious and cold manner, setting up the standard self-fulfilling prophecy dynamic: You think Elaine is being exclusive; you respond in a distant manner; and Elaine is likely to respond in kind.

“So someone who may have been welcoming – and a potential friend – really does become an excluder as a result of this misperception,” says Zayas.

Humans are highly vigilant for and alarmed by social exclusion – with one Information-Age exception, the Cornell psychologist notes: “If people are told the selection was made randomly by computer, they don’t take it personally.”

Something to ponder while watching the game at home, alone with a pint of double-chocolate ice cream.

The study was funded, in part, by a Haas Behavioral Lab Mini-Grant. At Cornell Zayas teaches courses in Introduction to Personality Psychology and Research Methods.