The way humans judge the social exclusion of other people varies, depending on how much they believe the excluded person is to blame, according to a new Swiss study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

However, this perception is strongly influenced by how similar the group members are to one another.

Most of us have experienced ostracism in some form, even if it’s just as an observer. When a group ostracizes someone out of unkindness or selfish motives, we usually view it as very unfair.

But sometimes onlookers judge ostracism as a justifiable action; for example, this can happen when the excluded person has previously behaved very inappropriately or caused unrest within the group. Still, making this kind of moral judgment correctly is often difficult, since outsiders often lack important background information.

Researchers from the University of Basel in Switzerland conducted five studies to investigate how people are influenced in judgment situations. The number of participants in each of the studies ranged from 30 to 527.

The findings show that people tend to find it more unjust when the excluded person is visibly different from the others, as we assume that this individual is only being excluded because they are different.  However, if the excluded person is not visibly different to the group, onlookers tend to assume that they have “brought it on themselves” through some kind of misconduct.

For the study, participants were shown various scenarios of ostracism, including a fictitious chatroom discussion in which three students discussed a presentation. The somewhat stubborn ideas and suggestions from one of the students in the discussion were regularly ignored by the other two.

When the participants believed that the ostracized person was “different” from the other two — for example, of a different skin color or from a different country — they judged the exclusion to be unjust. They were annoyed at the two students and rated them as bad collaborators.

However, when the chat group members were believed to be more similar — such as all from the same country — the participants’ viewpoint changed. In this case, they rated the excluded person negatively, placed the blame for the ostracism on him/her and wanted nothing to do with him/her.

The study also revealed that similarity influences social judgment even when it is only a superficial similarity, such as the excluded person having a different hairstyle. This suggests that people tend to unconsciously incorporate the similarity of the observed group into their moral judgment.

“These studies are important for topics such as bullying and ostracism in schools or workplaces,” said psychologist Dr. Selma Rudert, leader of the study.

When people are overly influenced by superficial characteristics and ignore actual information, it can quickly lead to misjudgments with serious consequences. If unfairly excluded people receive no support from others, their isolation will get worse.

“Ideally,” said Rudert, “you should always try to understand the whole history behind an ostracism situation before coming to a quick judgment.”

Source: University of Basel