You are seated in front of a computer monitor and are instructed to play an online game. By today’s standards, it is not a game with impressive graphics, an intricate storyline, or customizable characters. The instructions tell you that you will be playing against two other online users, and to click on the icon of whomever you would like to toss a ball to. This seems simple enough. Perhaps you decide to toss the ball in a counter-clockwise fashion or maybe to alternate between the other two players. The other two will likely follow suit once they realize what you are doing. But as the game progresses, you find that neither of the other players is giving you a go at tossing the ball. The game continues like this. You effectively become isolated. And studies are showing that this really hurts.
‘Cyberball’ is a paradigm used to model ostracism, or in more potent terms, social death . Developers of the game initially thought that it would not be sensitive enough to see any effects . Under the guise that the game was to help with mental visualization for an actual experiment at hand, participants played Cyberball for 5 minutes with fictitious characters programmed to give as many or no tosses as their experimental condition allowed . Initial studies overwhelmingly showed that those who never received the ball felt significantly worse about themselves .
In other words, Cyberball affected self-esteem and well-being . Ostracism in Cyberball is not due to any particular action on the part of the participant, and thus the paradigm is apt in targeting self-esteem .
Cyberball is used widely in studies involving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The use of Cyberball has shown that feelings of rejection are associated with increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of the brain , which normally is activated by physical pain . The ACC is also more activated in response to being excluded by Cyberball ‘players’ of the same gender, while participants playing with the opposite gender showed more activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vlPFC) . The vlPFC is thought to be involved in regulating inhibition of distress . It may be that ostracism by a group that an individual does not identify with results in buffering effects, which allow one to regulate negative emotions associated with such an experience .
Imaging studies have thus shown that the Cyberball paradigm can elicit notable changes in brain activity. Merit is also given to the notion that the paradigm can be manipulated on several different levels, some of which can include the degree of inclusion a participant gets in a game, and even the gender of its fictitious players [3,5]. The paradigm has even been used in a study that found overlap in neural regions involving social pain via Cyberball and physical pain by a heat stimulus . Those who were more sensitive to the heat stimulus also reported greater distress in response to ostracism .
The question that then arises is: Why does one become hurt by rejection? Humans derive a sense of well-being from belonging, and innately desire inclusion in a form that is generally positive and stable . We see this in the Cyberball paradigm through the desire to feel included in a game that an unknowing participant believes should be a mutually enjoyable experience. From an evolutionary standpoint, detecting rejection is advantageous in assessing whether there is a threat to one’s security and resources . Rejection is also perceived as a form of punishment, and thus one may feel that they have somehow done something wrong to elicit it .
On a larger scale, the Cyberball model is important. Peer rejection is widely experienced throughout life , and presents itself as a stressful experience. School children excluded by their peers show higher levels of cortisol and even signs of chronic stress . A Cyberball study further supports this through it’s finding that young adolescents are hypersensitized to ostracism compared to adults . Interestingly, activity in the ACC in response to an ostracizing Cyberball condition was reduced in young participants who reported spending more time with friends . Given that belonging is particularly important to adolescents, it was argued that such was the case because participants already felt that they already had a secure group of friends and were thus less affected by the excluding Cyberball players . The associations of social rejection and mental illness are also important. It is possible that social rejection serves as a predictor for depression , while inversely, depression can lead to social behaviors that elicit rejection by one’s peers .
In the wake of growing concerns over how exclusion affects its victim, rejection paradigms provide a useful tool for assessing exactly what happens in the brain during such an experience. Given its value as an experimental tool with huge translational implications, Cyberball exemplifies that some things should not be considered as “just a game.”
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