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Incidental ostracism emerges from simple learning mechanisms

Nature Human Behaviourvolume 2pages405414 (2018) | Download Citation



Ostracism, or social exclusion, is widespread and associated with a range of detrimental psychological and social outcomes. Ostracism is typically explained as instrumental punishment of free-riders or deviants. However, this instrumental account fails to explain many of the features of real-world ostracism, including its prevalence. Here we hypothesized that ostracism can emerge incidentally (non-instrumentally) when people choose partners in social interactions, and that this process is driven by simple learning mechanisms. We tested this hypothesis in four experiments (n = 456) with economic games in dynamic social networks. Contrary to the instrumental account of ostracism, we find that the targets of ostracism are not primarily free-riders. Instead, incidental initial variability in choosing partners for social interactions predicts later ostracism better than the instrumental account. Using computational modelling, we show that simple reinforcement learning mechanisms explain the incidental emergence of ostracism, and that they do so better than a formalization of the instrumental account. Finally, we leveraged these reinforcement learning mechanisms to experimentally reduce incidental ostracism. Our results demonstrate that ostracism is more incidental than previously assumed and can arise from basic forms of learning. They also show that the same mechanisms that result in incidental ostracism can help to reduce its emergence.

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We thank C. Efferson for valuable suggestions regarding the design and implementation of experiment 1, and A. Olsson, P. Pärnamets and I. Selbing for comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. This research was supported by Swiss NSF grants PP00P1_150739, 00014_165884 and 100019_176016 to P.N.T. B.L. was supported by Forte (COFAS2: 2014-2785 FOIP). The funders had no role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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  1. Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research, Department of Economics, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

    • Björn Lindström
    •  & Philippe N. Tobler
  2. Section for Psychology, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden

    • Björn Lindström


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B.L. and P.N.T. conceived the study and designed the experiments. B.L. collected the data, developed the models, analysed the data and implemented the models. B.L. and P.N.T. wrote the paper.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Björn Lindström.

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