“Go to your room!” The relationship between ostracism and obedience

“Go to your room!” Sound familiar? How about this one: “Take a time out!” Whether or not you can identify with these specific phrases, we as individuals in modern day society are no strangers to the use of social exclusion or ostracism as a means to promote obedience. This tactic of social control is commonly applied in multiple societal spheres and social contexts. In the home, sending a child to their room is a commonly used punishment for defiance. In a school setting, children might be put in “time out” for disobeying the teacher. Ostracism is even at the core of our penal system, demonstrated by the use of solitary confinement. The widespread reliance on ostracism as a tactic to manipulate social control raises the question as to whether ostracism and social exclusion is actually an effective means by which to promote obedience.

Extensive psychological research has been conducted on the topic of ostracism itself, and recent work suggests that brief periods of ostracism increase social susceptibility by promoting conformity and compliance among ostracized individuals. However, social psychologists Paolo Riva, Kipling D. Williams, Alex M. Torstrick, and Lorenzo Montali more closely examined the relationship between ostracism and direct obedience in a recently published paper. They found that ostracized individuals were more likely to obey the experimenter’s explicit direction to take creative pictures on a college campus, despite having to face outside temperatures of below 30°F to obtain photos that raters (who were blind to the experimental conditions) considered to be more creative. This work is a reflection of the idea that the human desire for belonging and inclusion is so powerful that ostracized individuals become more likely to obey a direct command to do something effortful, even in unfavorable or uncomfortable conditions.

In their study, Riva, Williams, Torstrick, and Montali used the Cyberball paradigm to manipulate ostracism. Participants were first approached by the experimenter in a “professional manor” in an attempt to establish an authoritative relationship. Participants were then randomly assigned to either the exclusion, inclusion, or control condition. Participants in the inclusion and exclusion conditions played a 2 minute long game of cyberball where the included participants received the ball about a third of the time and the excluded participants received the ball only twice. The control condition did not engage in the game. Following the game, participants self-reported their social distress and feelings of exclusion, where results confirmed that those in the exclusion group felt significantly more distressed and excluded than those in the inclusion group. Participants were then ordered by the experimenter to go outside and take 39 “unique and creative” photos. Although all participants shot the correct number of photos, those in the exclusion group were rated significantly higher on the basis of creativity, suggesting a higher level of obedience.

The implications of this study are certainly limited by the operational definition of obedience, which was the creativity of the photos. Admittedly, the researchers had hoped that there would be differences in the number of photos taken. Rather, the inclusion and control group participants “overtly” obeyed the command to shoot all 39 pictures, but “covertly” disobeyed the creativity requirement. It is unclear whether this truly constitutes obedience, as creativity is an extremely subjective measure, especially given that all participants showed some level of baseline obedience by taking the correct number of photos. Additionally, participants in this study were students completing the experiment as part of a class requirement. This underlying motive could very well have influenced the obedience of the students, and perhaps more conclusive results could be drawn from a different sample population.

Acknowledging that there are limits to this study, this research still has powerful implications and raises further questions about relationship between ostracism and obedience. There does seem to be scientific bases for the effectiveness of ostracism as a tool to promote obedience. Accordingly, if used appropriately, ostracism could be a powerful means to promote positive behavior. However, the implications become more serious when this power is used to manipulate and promote obedience in a way that is negative or harmful to the individual and those around them. For example, what are the consequences of social exclusion in a school based setting among peers used to promote negative forms of obedience, such as bullying or hazing? Or, on a larger scale, what are the implications of this phenomenon in the context of terrorism? If being ostracized for two minutes can result in such drastic differences in obedience, as was demonstrated in the context of this study, how powerful could longer periods of ostracism be in manipulating obedience? Ethical considerations make these questions difficult to answer through experimental research, yet examining social and political history alone, it appears as though some of these questions have already been answered.


Riva, P., Williams, K. D., Torstrick, A. M., & Montali, L. (2014). Orders to shoot (a               camera): Effects of ostracism on obedience. The Journal Of Social Psychology, 154(3), 208-216. doi:10.1080/00224545.2014.883354

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