Only some forms of social support alleviate the negative consequences of social exclusion

New research provides evidence that negative feelings and brain responses are modulated by the type of social support we receive after being socially excluded. The results of the study were recently published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

“The pain you feel when you are excluded is very strong and can have important negative consequences for health. Understanding how to help those who feel excluded is an important aspect of social neuroscience research,” said study author Rosalba Morese of the University of Lugano.

In the study, 71 female participants underwent fMRI brain scans while playing two rounds of a virtual ball-tossing game called Cyberball, which is a recognized tool for investigating response to social rejection and ostracism.

The participants were lead to believe that they were playing an online game of “catch” with two other individuals. During the game, the participants were systematically excluded by the other players.

In between the two round, the some participants received social support in the form of the gentle touch of the hand, while others received a supportive text message (such as “I think that these two players are actually friends.”) Both types of support were delivered by a female friend. A third group of participants, who acted as a control, received no social support between rounds.

The scientists found that the experience of social exclusion was modulated by the type of support received. In particular, being gently touched decreased negative emotions during the second round of Cyberball, while receiving a text message about the situation increased them.

The comforting physical touch was also associated with a reduction of activity in the right anterior insula, a brain area involved in the processing of negative emotion.

The study — like all research — includes limitations. The sample consisted entirely of women and the results may not necessarily be generalizable to men. Future studies are needed to extend these findings.