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Culture Changes Kids’ Reactions to Feeling Left Out

There’s a certain sting to feeling socially rejected. I’ve written before about the pains of social exclusion. There’s a whole body of research in psychology on ostracism and how people respond when they feel left out, excluded.

excluded04Although much of this research looks at adults’ reactions to being excluded, we also know that kids are sensitive to exclusion, too. “Duh,” right? We’ve all been there. Hanging out at the playground, and what began as a big group activity becomes a smaller group activity…one without you. I didn’t mean to bring up any painful childhood traumas, but it’s in the name of science!

Researchers have shown that kids as young as five react to social exclusion in much the same way that adults do. The question, though, is: why? How is it that we learn how to respond to this particular social experience of ostracism? And do we all learn the same thing?

The answer, it seems, might lie in the values held by your close family members…

Why the Family Business Matters

In a recent set of studies, Harriet Over and  and Ayse Uskul tested whether kids’ cultural upbringings were related to their responses to social exclusion. Their interest in culture, however, was rooted in a specific kind of culture. They looked at children whose parents were either farmers or herders in Turkey.

excluded03The idea here is that one’s economic circumstances are related to his or her social values. In this case, farmers live a life that requires working collaboratively with others. They tend to stay put geographically and maintain close ties with their families. As a result, social closeness is of great importance for farmers.

Herders, however, move around a lot and tend to conduct business in a relatively competitive way. Individual members of the family take responsibility for specific tasks, and as a result, social closeness tends to be less important for herders.

Keep in mind, though, that we’re not just talking about the differences between farmers and herders. Instead, this is just a clear case study that illustrates how a family’s occupation fosters a set of cultural values, which can get instilled in children even though the kids themselves aren’t the ones farming or herding.

Social Closeness and Feeling Excluded

This whole social closeness thing matters because it changes people’s responses to exclusion. If you come from a family that values social closeness (like a farming family), social exclusion might sting a little less because you know that you have a close support system to turn to. If you don’t come from a culture of closeness, however, feeling excluded can leave you feeling a little lost.

In their study, the researchers gave kids a description of another child who had just been excluded by a group of other kids. The question was simply: how sad do the kids think the story’s main character would feel in that situation?

The results consistently showed that children of farmers thought the excluded character would feel less sad than did the children of herders. In other words, when you come from a more close-knit family, you think social exclusion stings less than if you come from a more independent family.

It Really Is About Closeness

You might be thinking, “Wait–there’s  a lot of stuff that’s different about farmers vs. herders, and after all, these are kids in Turkey! Maybe things are just different there!”

Anticipating these issues, Over and Uskul collected some extra, important data. They looked at the social values held by these kids’ parents, and it was clear that farmers really did emphasize social connections more than herders did. Even more importantly, it was this difference in parents’ values that ultimately made the difference between kids who thought that being excluded would make people sad vs. not.

Also, there was evidence that the kids themselves emphasized social connections more when their parents were farmers, compared to herders. The researchers asked the kids to draw a picture of themselves with one of their friends. This allowed for a sneaky glimpse into how the kids thought about their relationships. As you might expect by now, farmers’ kids drew pictures where they were closer to their friends, compared to the pictures drawn by herders’ kids.

Farmers and Herders and Kids, Oh My!

excluded02Like I said before, it’s important to remember that this study isn’t really about farmers vs. herders in Turkey. Yes, those were the people who participated in the study, but this is really about the effects of social closeness. Psychologists have called this “interdependence.”

Although Turkish farmers and herders make for a great opportunity to study interdependence, the results have implications far beyond these specific cultures. Even in the United States (where I live), there are families that emphasize social closeness more than other families. Ultimately, this might shape how kids understand all kinds of social relationships even as they develop into adulthood.

This research also sheds interesting light on how our responses to social exclusion develop. The kids in these studies were as young as four years old, and even then, their parents’ occupations had an impact on how they interpret being left out of a group activity. Across the many findings in social psychology, there remains the question of how any of those patterns of human behavior come about. As this study illustrates, much of it might stem from early childhood learning.

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