Not in my gang: Children's and teenagers' reasons for excluding others

It's a fact of life that when kids form friendship groups some would-be members get left out. A lot of psychology research has focused on what it's like to be rejected. But now a new study has taken a more unusual approach, asking children and adolescents to recall times that they left someone out, and to explain their reasons for doing so. Holly Recchia and her team hope the findings could help design better interventions for reducing social exclusion.

Eighty-four children were interviewed: 28 7-year-olds, 28 11-year-olds and 28 17-year-olds. A clear difference emerged with age. The younger children rarely described themselves as having any choice when they'd excluded others. They mostly mentioned practical reasons - "We were playing piggy-back wars ... another kid wanted to play ... we didn't have any more people for him," or peer pressure - "We were playing jump roping and somebody else wanted to play with us, but then my friend said no." Their pleas of innocence contradict behavioural observations showing that young children often leave other kids out deliberately. The 17-year-olds, by contrast, were more up front, most often giving the reason that they disliked the excluded person - "We didn't invite this one girl because she's not open-minded ... ," was a typical comment.

Based on the finding with the younger kids, Recchia and her team said that social inclusion programmes for youngsters may benefit from encouraging them to take ownership over their actions, "given their apparent reluctance or incapacity to do so spontaneously."

On a positive note, when asked to evaluate their reasons for excluding others, even the younger participants showed evidence that they were conscious of the ramifications (for example, the rejected person might not want to be friends with them in the future). It was also clear that the participants sometimes deliberately avoided thinking too much about what they'd done - a strategy that the researchers said "was aimed at numbing their awareness of the emotional consequences of leaving others out." Consistent with this, some of the participants mentioned feeling guilty when they gave in to peer pressure and took part in the exclusion of others.

Even among the 17-year-olds, who mostly treated disliking another person as a valid reason for excluding them, there was evidence that they were aware of the "undesirability" of exclusion. Recchia's team said this was "heartening" and could provide "an initial entree for interventions aimed at helping widely disliked victims of exclusion become reintegrated."

This is the first study to investigate the subjective experience of excluding others across a wide age range of children and teens. The researchers said a "one-size-fits-all" model fails to capture the complexity of their results. "We argue that research on social exclusion could benefit from a fuller recognition of this variability and complexity in young people's subjective construals of their own experiences," they concluded, "thus setting the stage for programmes that may help young people to more critically and deliberately weigh their multiple and varying goals and concerns."

HE Recchia, BA Brehl, and C Wainryb (2012). Children's and adolescents' reasons for socially excluding others. Cognitive Development, 195-203 DOI: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2012.02.005

Previously on the DigestChildren's reasoning about when it's okay to reject their peers.
The pain of rejection.
We're better at spotting fake smiles when we're feeling rejected.
Realistic view of their popularity protects children against effects of social rejection.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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