man and his dogIt hurts to be rejected or excluded. Even rejections that might objectively seem impersonal and inconsequential can be upsetting. For example, if you play a ball-tossing game online with two other people and those two others start tossing only to each other and excluding you, that’s upsetting.

In experiments using that ball-tossing game, no one is using real names or photos, and there are no rewards or punishments involved. Still, getting ostracized is unnerving.

Just thinking about a time when you felt excluded or rejected can hurt, too. It can make you feel as though your social needs are not being fulfilled. In a just-published study, people who were asked to write about a time when they experienced rejection or exclusion (compared to those who wrote about something innocuous – what they did when they woke up the previous day), felt more disconnected, less good about themselves, less powerful, and more like they did not even exist than they had just before writing about their experience.

Lassie to the rescue! The people who participated in the study were all pet owners. What if, after writing about their experience of feeling ostracized, they then wrote about their favorite pet and why they liked that pet? Would that protect them from feeling badly about themselves? How would that compare with writing about their best (human) friend and what they like about that friend? How would it compare to doing something irrelevant, like drawing a map of campus?

Drawing the map was useless, as predicted. It was just included as a comparison (control) condition. The people who drew the map were the ones who felt more powerless, disconnected, and so forth than they had before writing about their experience of being rejected.

The people who wrote about their pets and what they liked about them – they had entirely different experiences. They felt no more disconnected, or badly about themselves in any other way, after they wrote about feeling rejected than they had before. Writing about their pets spared them from those bad feelings.

So what about the people who wrote about their best friends? They were protected from bad feelings, too – but not any more so than the people who wrote about their pets!

Power to the owners of pets! (True confession: I’m not one, though I have been in the past.)


The pet study is Study 3 in this article:

 McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Stayton, L. E., & Martin, C. E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1239-1252.

The online ball-tossing research is described here:

 Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 425-452.

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