The pain in the brain game
on how deeply the tossing of balls affects our brains
A fascinating and increasingly famous psychology experiment has to do with the tossing of a ball.
The psychologist Kipling Williams and his colleagues brought in test-subjects for a general survey. The test-subjects were asked in-depth questions about their psychological well being; about their sense of belonging, their sense of being in control, their self-esteem, how meaningful they find their existence, how unique they find themselves and others and so on. But unbeknownst to the test-subjects, they were participating in an experiment with a somewhat cruel twist.
At first, the test-subjects were asked to wait for their turn in a waiting-room in groups of three. One of them would find a tennis ball, and start a simple game of tossing the ball between the three people in the room. But what seemed like three test-subjects were in fact just one, for the other two were actors conducting the experiment. After a given time of a few minutes, they would stop including the real test-subject in their little game and only pass the ball to each other. This exclusion left the test-subject deeply disturbed and sometimes angry, which would also show in how they answered the questions in the survey.
The experiment was conducted under three conditions. One condition as just described, where the test-subject is excluded from the game after a while. Another, where the test-subject is included throughout the game, and one control condition, which does not contain a ball toss game at all.
The results were astonishing. The people who had been ostracised in the ball game answered the questions completely differently than those who had been included, and also differently than those who had not been in any ball game at all. In fact, inclusion in the game only made a small positive impact on people’s well being. But if excluded, a test-subject saw their lives as significantly less meaningful, and themselves as lacking uniqueness as human beings, and they thought that the ones who excluded them agreed.
A study: “The findings of the study, support the idea that people view themselves and others as less human when they are socially ostracized compared to when they are included. In addition, the study demonstrated that participants believed that others who ostracized them saw them as less human than those who included them.”1
Another outcome of feeling excluded was an impaired will-power. Those rejected, when given a choice, were much more likely to eat cookies than drink an allegedly healthy but unpleasant beverage, than those who were being included. The cookie-effect was still measurable forty five minutes after the game.2
Now this was only the beginning. Kipling Williams and his colleagues developed a computer game dubbed Cyberball. The test subjects were told that they play a virtual ball-tossing game with other test-subjects on other computers, although they, in fact, only played with a computer program. The program is designed to either include the test-subject in the game or exclude them after a while. The impact of the game in affecting people’s perspective of self and life was as profound as with real balls tossed amongst real people.
In the next step, the researchers told the test-subjects that they were, in fact, only playing with a computer program. The results remained the same.
They added extra incentive to dampen the sense of despondency, by introducing a point system wherein one loses points if one gets the ball and is therefore included in the game. The result still remained the same.
They introduced a monetary penalty system, such that the test subject lost money if they were passed the ball. Again, same effect.
The negative psychological effect of being ostracised from the game persisted, even when test-subjects knew they were being excluded by a computer, and even if being excluded by the computer meant both more points and more money for them.
Cyberball in a Brain Scanner
In 2002 Naomi Eisenberg and Matthew Lieberman had test-subjects play Cyberball inside an fMRI brain scanner, which can provide detailed images of brain activity, without quite knowing what to expect. They had earlier scanned people while subjecting them to physical pain. Their breakthrough came as they analysed their data from the Cyberball experiment and realised that the brain-images from people being excluded in the ball game could not be told apart from brain images of people being subjected to pain. To the brain (and thus to us), being pinched by needles is equivalent to being ostracised. Eisenberg and Lieberman were equally cruel when inflicting pain in people as they were exposing them to Cyberball.
To figure out exactly how alike physical pain is to social exclusion, the next step was to give some of the test-subjects regular, prescription-free, pain-relief medicine, and repeat the experiment. They gave half of the test-subjects painkillers and half of them placebo, and asked them to take it every day for three weeks. After nine days, the two groups started to answer their questionnaires differently. And after three weeks the effects from being ostracised completely disappeared for those on painkillers, while it persisted for those on placebo. Also, those who were on real pain medication showed no sign of pain during the fMRI brain scans. The feeling of being excluded is so much like physical pain that it can be reduced by real pain medicine.
That is how strong, and important, the fear for being excluded is. That’s how strong the instinctual driving force for fitting in, to conform into a culture is. It is fear of physical pain. And therefrom emerges a feeling of insecurity.
While we are on the subject of brain scans: Daydreams
When neurologists first began to scan the activity of brains, they discovered something peculiar. The neurologists subjected their test-subjects to all tasks they could imagine (with the restriction that the task must be performable within the narrow confines of a brain-scanner, while keeping your head very very still).
However, in between tasks, when the test-subject were not really busy doing anything in particular, all people seemed to have activity in the same area of the brain, no matter what the task shortly before had been. The researchers did not understand why, but they dubbed this brain network the “default mode network”, since it seems to be the activity which the brain reverts to by default when we are not busy doing anything else, and because it feels good to give things scientific sounding names.
It was not until years later that neurologists gave their test-subjects social tasks; specifically the task of imagining what other people might imagine that they imagine that others imagined that they imagined… The result of the scan showed the default mode network lighting up. It turns out that the default mode network is our social network (ahem…) in the brain!
A Scientific Article reviewing all research on the Default Mode Network (or DMN): “These results indicate that the DMN is indispensable in the social understanding of others.”3
So that is what our brain, and hence we, do when we are not really doing anything in particular: We practise being social, our social part of the brain is speculating and training. And how is that perceived by us? I don’t know about you, but to me, when I’m not particularly actively doing anything, my mind wanders and I tend to daydream. So, it would appear that when we daydream we are actually processing our social issues. Have psychoanalysts been looking for our unconscious in the wrong dreams all these years? Should they have looked into our daydreams instead of our night-dreams? For it is in our day-dreaming that our social insecurities and neuroses are manifested, and thus it seems we should pay closer attention to our daydreams. (Also, what would it do to our social abilities if we were put into a constant state of distraction?)
Insecure daydreaming by Ylvis
Next Episode: A false sense of insecurity–the free prisoner’s dilemma
Get your own fill of the pain, by playing cyberball online: https://cyberball.wikispaces.com/
Much of what is described here can be read about in greater detail in Matthew Lieberman’s fascinating book “Social”, where he describes the history of the Cyberball experiment, his and Naomi Eisenberg’s contributions to it, as well as the Default Mode Network.
TT, Thinking of Things, 2014.