Seeking social connection: How children recover from social exclusion

Amanda Mae Woodward, PhD candidate, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland

Think of a time that you met up with a friend at a coffee shop. The two of you sat at a table, drank coffee, and filled each other in on your lives. Over the course of the discussion, you may have experienced positive emotions like happiness, and you left the café with a sense of social connection. Positive social interactions, like the one just described, correspond with our overall well-being and help fulfill a fundamental human need: the need to belong with others (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Wesselman & Williams, 2013). However, as we all know, not all social interactions are positive. Imagine another scenario. You call one of your friends to make dinner plans. Your friend explains that he already has plans for dinner and will not be able to join you. You ask about his plans and learn that he is going to dinner with all of your mutual friends and no one has extended an invitation to you. How would you feel? You may, expectedly, experience negative emotions and feel lonely.

This interaction, and others like it, are instances of social exclusion. Being excluded negatively impacts social, cognitive, and physiological processing (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2002; Blackhart, Eckel, & Tice, 2007; DeWall, Deckman, Pond & Bonser, 2011). Exclusion leads to experiences of negative affect, decreases in mood, lowered self-esteem, and feelings of isolation (Leary & Cottrell, 2013; Maner, DeWall, Baumeister, & Schaller, 2007). If social exclusion occurs chronically, the repercussions of exclusion compound and become more severe over time (Richman 2013; Williams, 2007). Even young children are subject to the negative effects of social exclusion. Socially excluded middle school children report more negative emotions and have decreased feelings of belonging when compared to their included counterparts (Abrams, Weick, Thomas, Colbe, & Franklin, 2011; Wölfer & Scheithauer, 2013). Four- to six-year-old children exclude each other frequently, and being excluded has a negative influence on their future social behaviors (Fanger, Frankel, & Frazen, 2012; Stenseng, Belsky, Skalicka, & Wichstrøm, 2014). Due to social exclusion’s documented harmful consequences across the lifespan, it is important for children’s overall wellbeing to find a way to mitigate its effects. This post will explore some of the main strategies children use to mitigate such effects.

How do children ameliorate the consequences of social exclusion? One effective strategy involves the excluded child reestablishing a social connection (Maner et al., 2007).  Connecting with others satisfies children’s need to belong and reduces negative affect. To use this strategy, children must find potential social partners with whom they are likely to have positive interactions. If they think future interactions with the person who excluded them are likely, children may seek to reconnect with the excluder through the use of ingratiating behavior (e.g., mimicry or conforming to another’s opinions). In other cases, such as when reconnecting with the excluder is unlikely, children may look for new approachable social partners or contexts with which to form positive relationships (Molden & Maner, 2013).

Young children’s responses to exclusion support the use of both strategies. Five-year-olds who are excluded by group members imitate other in-group members with more fidelity than children who were not excluded (Watson-Jones, Whitehouse, & Legare, 2015). Imitation is a type of flattery, so by mimicking the behavior of potential social partners, children signal that they will be a good person with whom to interact (Over & Carpenter, 2009). Excluded children also demonstrate their openness to new social interaction in other wa­­ys. For instance, 5-year-olds who are excluded have been shown to engage in more mentalizing and to attend to the feelings of others more often than included children (White et al., 2016). Even witnessing exclusion leads children to strategically seek social partners. After observing a peer experience exclusion, children have been shown to display behaviors that facilitate social connection, including imitating others more frequently, drawing more affiliative pictures, and sitting physically closer to others (Marinovic, Wahl, & Träuble, 2017; Over & Carpenter, 2009; Song, Over, & Carpenter, 2015).

Less work has examined other strategies children may use to reduce the harmful effects of social exclusion, particularly when they have, or believe that they have, restricted means by which to reestablish a social connection. When the perceived likelihood of social reconnection is low, excluded people may react aggressively in order to establish feelings of control over their own lives (Wesselman & Williams, 2013). For instance, adults respond to social exclusion in antisocial ways when they are unlikely to reconnect with others (Maner & Molden, 2013). Indeed, adults have been shown to behave more aggressively and to engage in less prosocial behavior after being excluded (DeWall & Twenge, 2013; Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, & Stucke, 2001). Some recent research has explored children’s aggressive behavior after exclusion and has found similar evidence for the use of an aggressive strategy: children who were already high in aggression demonstrated increases in aggression following exclusion (Fanger, Frankel, & Frazen, 2012; Ostrov, 2010).

A final strategy to avoid or alleviate the harmful effects of social exclusion involves avoiding social interactions with people who are likely to exclude you. It is possible, and thus reasonable to infer, that people who have excluded you in the past would be likely to exclude you in the future, so you could circumvent the experience of social exclusion by refraining from interacting with them in the first place. Using this strategy requires excluded children to track social excluders and remember previous interactions. Our lab, the Lab for Early Social Cognition at the University of Maryland College Park, is currently working on a series of experiments to establish if and when children can use this strategy to effectively reduce the odds of experiencing social exclusion in the future.

Overall, social exclusion is harmful and can lead to devasting effects, the consequences of which apply to both adults and young children. It is thus essential to understand when children begin to experience instances of social exclusion and to establish how they can respond in order to prevent harm to themselves. This work may also have implications for the construction and implementation of interventions designed to help children reduce instances of social exclusion that they may carry with them into adulthood.



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Understanding others’ minds: Social context matters

Paula Fischer – PhD Candidate, Cognitive Development Centre, Department of Cognitive Science, Central European University

Imagine that you are walking with your friend through the forest, and suddenly you find yourselves next to a bush filled with red berries. Let’s suppose that you know a lot about different plants, and you immediately recognise that these berries are not only red berries, but that they are also dangerous. In fact, they are poisonous. However, you can see the sparkle in your friend’s eyes, and that he is already reaching towards the berries to replenish his energy levels after the long walk. What do you do? Well, if you would like to save the life of your friend, or at least prevent him from an unpleasant experience, you would warn him. You would do this because you understand that he believes that these berries are good to eat, and you know that he wouldn’t go for these berries if he knew that they were dangerous.

From this example and other everyday experiences, we can see that humans possess highly sophisticated abilities to ‘read’ others’ minds. This ability, called the Theory of Mind (ToM), enables us to attribute mental states to others, and to make predictions and draw inferences from their behavior and actions to their mental states. It is therefore essential for social interactions, because it underpins our being able to effectively coordinate and communicate with others. Researchers have been investigating this ability’s characteristics for decades, and much of this research has focused on when and how it develops. In this post, I will propose that one avenue for making progress in resolving open questions about the development of ToM can be made by appealing to when we use ToM.

Since Dennett (1978) pointed out that attributing true beliefs to others cannot be empirically distinguished from agents simply making predictions about the actions of others on the basis of their own knowledge and beliefs about the world, the conventional test for ToM became probing false belief (FB) understanding. One typical way to test for the understanding of false beliefs in children is the location-change task (Wimmer & Perner 1983; Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith, 1985). In such a standard false belief task, participants are exposed to a story in which the main character has a false belief regarding a location of an object (as a second character changed its location while she was absent). When to explicitly indicate where the first character will look for the object, children typically fail to take into account her false belief before the age of 4, answering (or pointing) towards the new (actual) location of the object (Wimmer & Perner, 1983, Perner, Leekam & Wimmer, 1987).

There has been an ongoing debate as to whether the ability to understand others’ (false) beliefs is early developing, or whether it develops only from around the age of 4 with the emergence of other abilities, e.g. executive function and language (see for example Slade & Ruffmann, 2005). Two main lines of research have collected evidence either for or against these statements. One line of research which uses implicit measures of false-belief understanding, mostly influenced by Leslie’s theory on pretence (Leslie, 1987), suggests that infants are sensitive to others’ beliefs from very early on. For example, Onishi and Baillargeon (2005) found evidence of false-belief understanding in 15-month-olds using a violation of expectations paradigm (see Scott & Baillargeon, 2017 for a review on this research). The other line of research instead suggests that full-blown ToM develops only after the age of 4. This line of research attempts to explain positive findings with younger infants by appealing to either low level cues (e.g. Heyes, 2014), or a minimal ToM account (Apperly & Butterfill 2009) which proposes that an early developing system is rich enough to represent belief-like states only (but not beliefs per se).

How can this puzzle regarding early mind reading be solved? One may ask: if there is a conceptual change around the age of 4, then what exactly happens around that time that allows or triggers such change? I will suggest that focusing on why ToM is crucial in several aspects of our everyday social lives (from language development and communication, to cooperation and altruistic behaviour) may provide a means of answering this question.

Can the basic ability to track others’ mental states contribute to language acquisition? Some experimental evidence supports the hypothesis that, from a relatively early age, infants are sensitive to semantic incongruity. That is, they understand when an object is labelled incongruently from its real meaning (e.g. Friedrich & Friederici, 2005; 2008). A study by Forgács and colleagues (2018) investigated whether infants would track such semantic incongruities by others’ perspectives. They measured 14-months-olds event-related potential (ERP) signals, and found that infants show N400 activation (a well-established neuropsychological indicator of semantic incongruity) not only when objects are incongruently labelled from their own viewpoint, but also from their communicative partner’s point of view (see also Kutas & Federmeier, 2011; Kutas & Hillyard, 1980). These findings suggest that infants track the mental states of social partners, keep such attributed representations updated, and use them to assess others’ semantic processing. This study can further be taken as indicating that representational capacities (such as those required for belief ascription) are present at 14-month-olds in a communicative context.

Such belief attribution in similarly young infants can also be observed in ostensive-communicative inferential contexts. In a study by Tauzin and Gergely (2018), infants’ looking time was measured during the observation of unfamiliar communicative agents; children needed to interpret the turn-taking exchange of variable tone sequences, which was indicative of communicative transfer of goal relevant information from a knowledgeable to a naïve agent. In their experiments, infants observed the following interaction: one of the agents placed a ball in a certain location, and later saw the ball moving to a different location. The other agent, who had not observed the location-switch, later tried to retrieve the ball. Based on their looking times, infants only expected the ball-retrieving agent to go to where the ball really was if the first agent (who observed the location-switch) communicated the transfer. Based on these findings, the authors suggested that 13-months-old infants recognised these turn-taking exchanges as communicative information transfer, suggesting that they can attribute communication-based beliefs to other agents if they can infer the relevant information that is being transmitted.

Besides playing a role in children coming to understand important aspects of communication, ToM may play a crucial part in cooperation and altruistic behaviour. The question as to how ToM relates to, for instance, instrumental helping, has received relatively little attention. One of the first studies probing the relationship between false belief understanding and helping comes from Buttelmann, Carpenter and Tomasello (2009). During their experiments, infants observed a protagonist struggling to open a box in order to obtain a toy. In the critical part of the experiment the toy was moved by another agent from its initial box to a different box. The protagonist either observed this move, or had left the room.  When the main protagonist had left the room and then tried to open the box which initially contained the toy, infants spontaneously helped him by indicating that he should try to open the alternative box instead. However, when the main protagonist observed the location-switch, infants helped him open the initial box. This suggests that by 18 months of age, helping behaviour is guided by the beliefs of the helpee. This study, amongst others (see also Matsui & Miura, 2008), support the hypothesis that representing others’ mental states is a key feature for helping and cooperating, and that infants are capable of taking into account others’ beliefs when helping spontaneously from very early on.

The ability to represent others’ mental states plays a crucial part in our social lives. Understanding what others think is important not only for high-level cooperative or competitive problem solving, but even in smaller day-to-day social interactions when we need to act fast (e.g., preventing our friends from coming to harm during a walk). The studies discussed here suggest that from a relatively early age, humans are able to adjust their helping behaviour on the basis of others’ beliefs, and the beliefs of others may shape children’s understanding of communicative episodes. Future research may do well to keep in mind that when it comes to ToM, social context seems to matter.



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