Will a Cold Shoulder Fix Your Relationship Problems?
Most of us, at one time or another, have been guilty of using the withdrawal of our love, affection, or attention as a tool to coerce others into doing what we want them to do. Couples may give each other the silent treatment when they are displeased, parents may pointedly ignore their children in an attempt to express disapproval of their behavior. Friends may cut one another out of their circle over real or imagined slights, gossip, or failure to conform to the group's social norms. But does our cold shoulder really get us what we want?
Clearly, that depends on what it is that we want. Do we want revenge? Do we want to "win" at all costs—establish our superiority in the social food chain? Do we want one more fix of that very seductive self-righteous chemical brain rush we get when we are sure we're right and the other person is wrong, and we get to be the one who puts them in their place before trumpeting our victory to our cronies? (This description isn't just a literary device. Research suggests that the chemical released in the brain during a self-righteous episode can literally be addictive.)
If what we want is repair, connection, and good physical and mental health outcomes for all concerned—including ourselves—then the answer is no. Turning a cold shoulder won't get us what we want. Lest you doubt (and don't we all love a little doubt when our favored behaviors are being questioned?) there is a vast bibliography of research to convince us. I will include some specific studies at the end of this post, but in short, social exclusion numbs our victims. It makes them less able to think coherently, limits their self-control, even cuts their empathy for others off at the knees.
Those being excluded DO crave connection, but rather than risk rejection by returning to former loved ones they will look for acceptance in less intimidating quarters. And considering their equally less discriminating state of mind, these new connections may not be the most conducive for good life outcomes.
"The need to belong," write researchers Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, "is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation."
It would be prudent to give careful thought to any actions that might underestimate this need. When used as a tool for coercion it can have unanticipated consequences.
Social Exclusion Impairs Self-Regulation, Baumeister et al. (2010), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 88(4), Apr 2005, 589-604.
Alone but feeling no pain: Effects of social exclusion on physical pain tolerance and pain threshold, affective forecasting, and interpersonal empathy. DeWall and Baumeister (2006), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 91(1), Jul 2006, 1-15.
Social exclusion decreases prosocial behavior, Twenge et al, (2007). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 92(1), Jan 2007, 56-66.
Social Exclusion and the Deconstructed State: Time Perception, Meaninglessness, Lethargy, Lack of Emotion, and Self-Awareness, Twenge et al. (2003). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 85(3), Sep 2003, 409-423.
Effects of social exclusion on cognitive processes: Anticipated aloneness reduces intelligent thought, Baumeister et al. (2002). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 83(4), Oct 2002, 817-827.
Does social exclusion motivate interpersonal reconnection? Resolving the "porcupine problem." Maner, et al. (2007). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 92(1), Jan 2007, 42-55.
Silence Is Not Golden, Stepp (2007).
People: Who Needs Them?, Stepp (2011)