Not Responding to Text Messages Can Induce Effects of Being Ostracized

Text messagePrevious research has found that social exclusion, rejection, and ostracism are all almost universally painful experiences.

But how easy is it to evoke the feeling of being ostracized?

Anita Smith of Marquaria University and Kipling D. Williams of Purdue University conducted a study to investigate whether it was necessary for participants to witness others engaging in social interaction without them to experience the painful effects of ostracism.

Their research was published in Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice in 2004.

In studies conducted before their own, the participants were able to observe others interacting without them.

In contrast, Smith and Williams prevented the participants in the study from knowing whether the other participants were communicating without them by requiring all the participants to communicate via text messaging on cellular phones.

Their study, which included 40 college students, randomly assigned the participants to one of four groups.

The four groups were composed of an ostracism or inclusion condition and in-group or out-group condition in a design that is commonly known as a 2×2 factorial design.

After being assigned to a group, the participant completed a demographic questionnaire in a room with two other participants who were actually confederates of the researchers.

Then, “they were told they would begin by answering two questions supplied by the experimenter (one of which constituted the in-group/out-group manipulation), after which they were to maintain the interaction until the experimenter told them to stop. The two confederates were taken to another room, leaving the participant alone,” as Smith and Williams explain.

The in-group or out-group condition was manipulated by asking the participant, via a text message, whether he or she smoked. For the in-group condition, “the confederate would say that they had the same smoking habits as the participants” while in the out-group condition they “would say they did not share the same smoking habit.”

The ostracism or inclusion condition was manipulated by either responding to the participants text messages or not responding to any of the participants text messages for eight minutes.

Compared to those who were included in the text-based conversation, “participants who were ostracized had a lower sense of belonging, control, self-esteem, and meaningful existence.”

Those who were ostracized also reported having a more negative mood, being angrier, and wanting more harmony with the other participants.

These effects occurred even though the participants did not know that there were being purposefully ignored by the others. As far as these participants knew, they may have not been receiving a response because of technical difficulties or other issues.

“The accumulated evidence points to the conclusion that other potentially mitigating factors, like in-group/out-group membership, individual differences, ability to attribute ostracism to nonpunitive causes, and lack of knowledge that others in the group are communicating with each other, are overwhelmed by merely being ignored and excluded.”


Smith, A. & Williams, K.D. (2004). R u there? Ostracism by cell phone text messages. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, Vol 8, No 4: 291-301.