Factor 2: Social Exclusion

Why We Fear Social Exclusion

Evolution favors groups of animals that can cooperate and share. Hunting, fighting off predators, and caring for young are much easier as a community. The resulting benefits of safety, procreation, and communal resources help promote survival.

In individual terms: “If I share my antelope, my cooperation and generosity ensure that I can hang out with my tribe around the fire tonight and be safe. Tomorrow, when I do not find any food, perhaps you will be more likely to share with me.”

Our ancestors who had an inborn urge to get along with others were less likely to get kicked out of the tribe. This increased their survival odds. It is easy to see that pro-social “tend-and-befriend” behaviors, such as nurturance, physical comfort, emotional support, altruism, reciprocity, conformity, and compliance, are deeply engrained in human behavior because they are survival related.

The urge for social affiliation is so powerful it drives individual behavior today, even in the developed world, where we no longer need to band together to fight off a lion or fear we will die if we are rejected. Many of our human social codes and morals are engrained ways of encouraging us to fit in and group together.

This need to belong plays out in a strong natural desire to avoid feeling shamed, then rejected and cast out. As a result, when we believe we may be ostracized, we generally have predictable reactions, including fear, humility, submission, and compliance.

In modern society we now use our fear response system to react almost entirely to emotional, rather than physical threats. And that danger tends to center on our relationships with others, especially if we feel we are at risk for social exclusion.

Two young girls bullying other young girl outdoors

This urge is so elemental to us that when we feel victimized, rejected, or shamed by our social group, it can trigger the threat response (Factor #1). When anticipating social disconnection, our primal brain believes our survival is at stake and responds. Neuroscientists now know that the same parts of the brain that evaluate physical pain are used to judge the emotional pain of social rejection.1 In essence, to your brain a breakup with your girlfriend may feel the same as a tiger leaping at you.

Some sociologists even use the phrase “social death” to describe the phenomenon, which indicates the power of our fear of social exclusion.2


Feelings of isolation are toxic emotionally and even physically. Feeling alone and excluded triggers feelings of fear, hostility, and shame that may result in physical symptoms, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.3 Conversely, the feeling of inclusion is physically healthy, bringing lower heart rates, improved sleep, and reduced stress hormones, according to numerous medical studies. Other research shows that married people have lower rates of illness and live longer.4

The most likely cause of excessive need for approval is a lack of secure attachment to primary caregivers starting at birth (Factor #5). Shame-based parenting that over-focuses on behavioral compliance also provides a foundation of rejecting messages that can lead to an overwhelming need for approval.

As a result of rejection sensitivity, people become fearful and also respond in three predictable ways in an attempt to manage these feelings of rejection and shame. (See “Three Counterproductive Shame Management Strategies.”)

All the evidence confirms that fear of social exclusion is a natural human condition. Because of this fact, loneliness and the need for human relationship and connection should never be considered a “mental disorder.”

  • 1 Ochsner, K.N., Zaki, J., Hanelin, J., Ludlow, D.H., Knierim, K., Ramachandran, T., et al. (2008) Your pain or mine? Common and distinct neural systems supporting the perception of pain in self and other. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 3(2), 144-160.
  • 2 Ouwerkerk, J.W., et al., Avoiding the Social Death Penalty: Threat of Ostracism and Cooperation in Social Dilemmas, The 7th Annual Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology: The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection, & Bullying, Mar. 16-18, 2004
  • 3 Hawkley, L.C.; Cacioppo, J.T. (2010). “Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms”. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 40 (2): 218–27. doi:10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8. PMC 3874845. PMID 20652462
  • 4 Holt-Lunstad, J.; Smith, T. B.; Layton, J.B. (2010). Brayne, Carol, ed. “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review”. PLoS Medicine 7 (7): e1000316. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316. PMC 2910600. PMID 20668659