When Kipling Williams of Purdue University experienced exclusion by a couple of Frisbee throwers at a park, he designed a technique called Cyberball.

Are we as independent as we think?

It’s easy to kid ourselves we’re more independent than we think we are. Today you can remove yourself physically from community living; work from home, chat via social media and even shop without entering a store. We no longer need to fit in to survive like we did when we lived in caves. Or before the train, car or plane. But is that just an illusion? Have we actually adapted at all? If so, why does it hurt when people turn their back on you for no reason? What’s the big deal? If you can amass thousands of friends on Facebook, then why fret when a couple suddenly befriend you online or befriend you in class or at the office?

That’s what scientists have been focusing on over the last decade.

Why do we react badly to being shunned?

A spate of school shootings hyped their interest. The shooters were students who had experienced isolated by classmates. Why do we still react so badly to being shunned? The results reaffirmed nothing has changed at all. Fitting in and socialising is as much a part of human life as it ever was. In fact, it affects almost everything we do. They carried early experiments out in a lab, but today they have moved them to the internet.

To study rejection inside of an MRI scanner, researchers use a technique called Cyberball, which Kipling Williams of Purdue University designed following his own experience of being suddenly excluded by a couple of Frisbee throwers at the park. In this test, the subject plays an online game of catch with two other players. Eventually these team mates throw the ball only to each other, excluding the other person. Compared with volunteers who continue as part of the game, those who are rejected show increased movement in the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula — two of the regions that display heightened activity in response to physical pain.

Confirmation of sadness

Cyberball does more than prove rejection, though. It seems to confirm that there is little you can do to avoid the feeling of sadness. If this was a normal everyday event whereby people you care about deliberately exclude you from their conversation, it would be rational to feel confused or upset. But the on-line experiment is a game between unknown players, and they rig the entire situation. You know you they are going to ignore you and yet you still suffer the anguish. It seems we haven’t changed a bit, have we? If knowledge is power, then Cyberball is a worthy trial. 

You can download it online.