As humans, we are tethered to our realities by relationships with those around us. Life becomes meaningful and important when we are connected to others who influence our self-perception and behavioral choices. But what happens when those bonds become untethered? If we do not feel connected to our peers, how does that affect our psyche considering so much of our being is rooted in the social? Even our thorough thought processes are deeply rooted in our social contexts. This is important to keep in mind and can help us to identify those who may be at risk for depression and dangerous risky decisions.

Researchers Melissa T. Buelow, and James H. Wirth examine these questions in a 2016 study linking ostracism to Decision Making.

Hypotheses and procedure

Buelow and Wirth saw the effects of ostracism on cognition and wanted to better understand its effects on other thought processes. They asked what effect ostracism would have on decision-making, particularly in relation to risky decisions. Thus, the researchers used simulated games to make some participants feel ostracized, then they assessed the participants’ satisfaction on the fundamental needs of belonging, control, meaningful existence, and self-esteem as well as their negative affect and feelings of being burdensome. Finally, the researchers had them participate in another simulation designed to measure risky decision making.

In this way, they tested the following hypotheses: (1) ostracized participants will experience less basic need satisfaction, (2) ostracized participants will experience more negative affect, and (3) ostracized participants will make riskier decisions compared to included participants. The researchers ran two very similar studies, both using undergraduate students as participants, in which one study focused on Type 1 decision making (intuitive, fast processing) while the other focused more on Type 2 (slow and analytical processing).

Both studies (n=83, n=120) included samples that were about half male and half female, two-thirds Caucasian. The sample sizes, according to the researchers, were sufficient to detect medium effects, but not sufficient to detect smaller effects.


The findings proved to be rather interesting. The studies confirmed the hypothesis that ostracized participants would experience less basic need satisfaction as well as the hypothesis that ostracized participants would experience more negative affect.

Such participants also felt more burdensome, even though the simulations did not give participants the opportunity to burden the group, thus feeling burdensome may be part of the ostracism process. The more interesting finding, however, is that ostracism did affect decision making, but only during Type 2 decision making. This is the type of decision making that involves slow processing and analysis, in contrast to Type 1, which consists of intuitive snap judgments. The first study utilized a risky decision making the measurement (the IGT) that measured Type 1 decisions in the early trials and Type 2 decisions in the later trials, and pairwise comparisons indicated that ostracized participants made risky decisions in the later blocks but not the earlier ones.

The second study’s decision-making measurement (the GDT) assessed only Type 2 decision making, and the researchers found that ostracism had an effect here as well. Both studies also included a measurement (the BART) of Type 1 decisions only, and no effect was found of ostracism on decision making in this test. These findings suggest that ostracism may impair an individual’s ability to assess long-term consequences of decisions and cause them to maintain a more immediate focus, which leads to risky decision making. Perhaps this has something to do with the feeling of being untethered from those around you, as my personal experience suggests. Not having a group to identify with and keep in mind when making decisions might deter a person from thinking of long-term consequences because they do not have to consider how the decision might affect the group to which they belong.

Connections and limitations

The researchers connect the studies to suicide in that ostracism and feelings of being burdensome may contribute to suicidal ideation and behavior. Buelow and Wirth cite the interpersonal-Psychology theory of suicidal behavior which states that “thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness are proximal causes of suicidal ideation." Ostracism is a direct attack on one’s fundamental motive of belonging, thus it is unsurprising that ostracism contributes to suicidal ideation.

The studies were performed well with few limitations, which mostly relate to sample size and participants. The research points to future experimental testing of the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior, as well as contributing to previous support for the negative effects of exclusion on complex cognitive processes. One important question to be considered, however, is whether or not ostracism decreases or inclusion increases decision making. Further research is needed to determine the distinction.