Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Adaptations to Avoid Ostracism

  • David S. ChesterEmail author
  • Nathan Dewall
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1474-1



Humans evolved strategies to avoid being ignored, left out, or ostracized. By avoiding ostracism, our evolutionary ancestors were better suited to their environment. Such adaptations helped ensure our survival and reproduction.


The need to belong is a basic feature of human psychology and characterizes us as a species (MacDonald and Leary 2005). Ostracism threatens this need. To help our ancestors achieve their survival and reproductive goals, people evolved adaptations to prevent ostracism. Below, examples of adaptations to avoid ostracism are listed.

Social Pain

Physical pain evolved to alert us to environmental threats and to serve as a preventative force against physical injuries (Bolles and Fanselow 1980). Social pain, the aversive experience associated with ostracism, arose from an evolutionary push to co-opt the physical pain system to respond to social injuries (e.g., ostracism; Chester et al. 2012). Much like physical pain, individuals with a blunted sense of social pain exhibit greater ostracism in their daily lives (Chester et al. 2015). The prospect of ostracism’s sting prevents people from doing things that could cause them to experience ostracism.

Conformity, Obedience, and Norm Adherence

Group members who disobey group norms often experience ostracism (Kurzban and Leary 2001). This tendency is even observed among our close Chimpanzee relatives (Goodall 1986). Thus, it behooves people, especially those at the lower rung of the social ladder, to act in ways that conform to group standards. Our powerful tendency to conform to group norms and obey authority figures likely reflects the need to prevent ostracism across our species’ history (Latané 1981).

Reciprocity and Free-Loading

For society to flourish, people must cooperate and pool resources. Distressing times often propel people to help rather than hurt others. But people also seek to maximize their personal outcomes. Rather than giving their fair share, people rely on others’ generosity. To prevent people from enjoying the benefits of group membership without contributing, humans have evolved cheater detection mechanisms that serve to identify and ostracize free-riders (Price et al. 2002). To prevent ostracism, group members must reciprocate assistance from others and contribute equally to collective tasks.


We’ll never know if people were born to be bad or good. What we do know is that selfish, antisocial actions can cause ostracism. To restrain egocentric tendencies, individuals must use self-control, the ability to place higher-order goals above immediate desires (Baumeister et al. 2007). Self-control processes arise from the prefrontal cortex, a brain structure that is disproportionately large in humans (Dunbar 2002). The prefrontal cortex likely evolved to prevent selfish impulses from translating into ostracism from the group.


Early humans evolved in small groups, relying heavily on each other for their well-being. In that context, ostracism was a death sentence. As a result, humans evolved adaptations to avoid ostracism. Through social pain, adherence to group norms, contributing equally to group goals, and using self-control to restrain our selfish impulses, we can avoid being ostracized.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyVirginia Commonwealth UniversityRichmondUSA
  2. 2.University of KentuckyLexingtonUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Minna Lyons
    • 1
  1. 1.University of LiverpoolLiverpoolUK