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The Upside of Not Fitting In

Social exclusion enhances our ability to manage the emotions of others.
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(Photo: udra11/Shutterstock)

(Photo: udra11/Shutterstock)

From the bastard Edmund in King Lear to Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, dramatists have invented vivid characters who, after finding themselves outcasts or outsiders, become master manipulators.

It turns out William Shakespeare and George R.R. Martin were tapping into a real phenomenon. Newly published research suggests social exclusion can enhance “the ability to manage others’ emotions.”

Throughout human history, note Northwestern University psychologists Elaine Cheung and Wendi Gardner, ostracization has been personally painful, and sometimes life-threatening. Finding a way back into the safety of one's tribe (or, perhaps, a way to attach yourself to a different social unit) is imperative.

Their research, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggests this desperate need somehow activates our latent ability to display a key component of emotional intelligence. In short, it enhances our ability to make people like us.

"Social exclusion may enhance the ability to manage others' emotions, and ... this enhanced ability may evoke greater liking from others."

Cheung and Gardner demonstrate this in a series of studies. In one, the 96 participants (recruited online) were instructed to write about either "a time when they felt as if they did not belong," or "the layout of their local grocery store." They then listed the strategies they would expect to use when they wanted to cheer up a sad friend, or calm down an angry one.

Those who had just recalled a period of social exclusion came up with more ways to buck up their friend. They also "used a greater breadth of strategies' to manage their pal's emotions, increasing their likelihood of success."

The second study featured 75 duos, all made up of undergraduates taking a psychology course. One member assumed the role of a job candidate, while the other played a coach who would help him or her develop strategies to get the biggest possible signing bonus. The coaches were first assigned to write about either a past experience of social exclusion or one of social acceptance.

The researchers found the applicants who interacted with the excluded coaches emerged from their talk more inspired, and they subsequently "exhibited superior negotiation effectiveness" when it came time to actually work out their bonus. What's more, they reported greater liking for their coach. This again suggests people who were feeling left out "were more effective at managing their partner's emotions."

In a third study, 101 participants recruited online were asked to write letters in response to the correspondence from three new pen pals: Kim, who was "feeling sad because her dog passed away; Ruth, who was feeling anxious because she was recently laid off and needed a job to support her four children; and Roger, who was feeling happy because of the birth of his first grandchild."

Those who had been thinking about being excluded (as opposed to the layout of their neighborhood grocery) "wrote letters that contained a greater number of attempts to manage other's emotions," even though they were given no explicit instructions to do so. What's more, compared to those by members of the control group, their letters were rated more effective, and they came across as more likable.

"Taken together," the researchers conclude, "these findings suggest that social exclusion may enhance the ability to manage others' emotions, and that this enhanced ability may evoke greater liking from others."

But what about revenge-minded manipulation, in which the excluded party uses these newly honed skills not just to get back into a given social circle, but to get some form of revenge? Cheung and Gardner don't address that issue, and perhaps it occurs more often on stage and screen than in real life.

To be safe, however, you might want to think twice before banishing someone from your basketball team or book club. You may be unwittingly enhancing their appeal to those around you.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.