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Think about the following two scenarios.
Scenario A: You belong to an international public Facebook group dedicated to golden retrievers. You’ve got two of them at home and just can’t get enough of them! One day, you notice someone from within the group who goes by @GoldensForever who has friended you. You friend her back. And that is about the extent of your interactions. You have no clue who she is, where she lives, or anything. And you don’t think much of it.
One day you are going through your Facebook and checking out the newest cute puppy photos, when all of a sudden you notice that @GoldensForever is no longer listed as your friend. Yet she is clearly still active on the Facebook group, having just posted a picture of her puppy an hour ago. Hmm …
Scenario B: You’re on a small committee at work. There are five of you on the team. Your charge is to develop a plan for increasing recycling among the members of your department during working hours. You’ve been in your department for over 20 years and you have known everyone on your committee for the better part of a decade at least. You consider yourself friends with them all, for the most part. And you have enjoyed working with them on this project.
It’s a Friday and your committee met between 1:00-2:00 today. The meeting went well and you didn’t think much of it. You spend the rest of the afternoon answering emails and straightening out your desk. You’re home by about 6:00.
The next morning, you are scrolling through Facebook and you come upon a bunch of photos from your favorite happy hour pub. The problem is this: Every member of your committee is there, apparently having a great time. Tequila shots, beer samplers, wings, and even guacamole. In fact, each of the four of them posted pictures from this epic happy hour independently on Facebook, flooding the airwaves with memories of the happy hour that you were cut out from.
So the question is this: Which scenario do you find more bothersome? In Scenario A, someone whom you never met and likely never would meet unfriended you on Facebook. Who cares, right?
But Scenario B is an entirely different beast. Here, you were socially dissed by multiple people. Further, you’d defined these individuals as your long-standing friends. And separate from all that, they are your recycling committee team members. You have to look them in the eye and work alongside them on Monday morning. And the fact that they all posted so much about their stupid happy hour without you makes the fact that you are being ostracized feel like a public event.
Let’s face it, Scenario B is much more threatening than is Scenario A.
Minds Built for Small-Scale Living
The evolutionary perspective on human social behavior has the capacity to shed important light on all facets of human social psychology. A core principle of this field of the behavioral sciences pertains to the fact that human minds did not evolve for large-scale living (see Giphart & Van Vugt, 2018; Dunbar, 1992). The neolithic revolution, which included the advent of agriculture and civilization, took place about 10,000 years ago. In the timescale of organic evolution, that is a blink of an eye.
Prior to the neolithic revolution, our ancestors were all nomadic. They weren’t growing their own food, so they were following it across the seasons.
There is an important practical constraint that pertains to group size in nomadic clans. In short, nomadic groups are generally capped at about 150 individuals. This constraint follows simply from the fact that as a group becomes too large, it becomes increasingly difficult to move everyone from here to there. Think about the logistics associated with evacuating a large city like New York compared with evacuating a small town of less than 200 in a rural part of Montana. The latter would be much easier.
Under the primary conditions that surrounded human evolution, people lived in small clans, capped at about 150. Further, they were surrounded by the same individuals across their lifespans. Today, you might walk from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to Grand Central Station and see thousands of strangers whom you’ll never see again. Being surrounded by strangers in such large-scale communities is evolutionarily mismatched from the kinds of small-scale social ecosystems that the human mind evolved to exist in.
This evolution-based perspective can help us understand why Scenario B from above is so much more unsettling than is Scenario A. In Scenario A, you are slighted by a stranger. Under ancestral conditions, our ancestors were not spending much time interacting with strangers. For the lion’s share of human evolutionary history, our ancestors were surrounded by kin and by others with whom they shared long-standing familial histories. Our minds didn’t evolve to set off alarms when some faceless stranger from across the globe, who happens to like the same dog breed that we like, unfriends us.
But Scenario B is much more characteristic of the kinds of social scenarios that our ancestors would have regularly encountered. In Scenario B, you were slighted by others whom you defined as being in your social circle. In fact, you’d defined them as “your friends.” Others whom you should be able to trust to have your back.
If your entire social world is comprised of 150 people and you suddenly see that four of them are potentially cutting you out, that’s a problem. Under ancestral conditions, being cut out from four others who are central to your social circle would be disastrous. Four people would comprise a significant proportion of your entire social world. Further, gossip has always been rampant in small social communities (see Kniffin & Wilson, 2010). So you’d probably be concerned as to why they were cutting you off and, further, what they were saying to everyone else.
Estrangements in Human Evolutionary Context
In a recent study conducted by the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab (Geher et al., 2019), my team and I explored the social psychological outcomes associated with estrangements. Based on the evolutionary reasoning described above, we predicted that people who reported being estranged from a relatively high number of other people would show a broad array of adverse social and psychological consequences.
To test this question, we surveyed more than 300 adults of varying ages from throughout the United States. We had each participant describe each instance of someone living in the world today who is “dead to them.” We defined an estrangement as a social situation in which you acted like the person was dead to you and that person fully reciprocated. An ex-spouse whom you refuse to make eye contact with at the grocery store could be an example.
Our methodology allowed us to measure the total number of estrangements that each participant reported having in his or her own social world. The average number of reported estrangements was 3.86. So most adults in our sample could name about four people in the world who were “dead to them.” Interestingly, there was quite a range of scores for the estrangement variable. Scores ranged from 0 to 27 (yes, one participant reported 27 specific others living in the world today who are “dead” to that person).
We then had participants complete a broad array of psychological measures of such basic psychological constructs as basic personality traits (such as emotional stability and narcissistic tendencies), sexual promiscuity, degree of social support that one receives from others, and tendencies toward depression and anxiety.
In short, we found that the number of estrangements that one reported had ubiquitous outcomes when it came to one’s social and emotional world. This fact was particularly true when comparing those with an extreme number of estrangements (defined as 10 or higher) with others. Extreme estrangers empirically emerged as manipulative, callous, narcissistic, sexually promiscuous, emotionally unstable, anxious, and depressed. Further, they reported themselves as having little in the way of support from others. Life is hard for extreme estrangers.
Estrangement, Depression, Causality, and Directionality
Behavioral scientists focus largely on the details of understanding causal links between variables. That is, do estrangements cause distress and related outcomes? Or is it possible that it goes the other way and that distress in one’s emotional and social world indirectly causes one to become estranged from others. After all, no one likes a sad sack.
In our study, we conducted a causal modeling analysis* to test the plausibility of a model that has number of estrangements as the “causal” variable and depression as a relevant outcome variable. We found evidence for two significant indirect paths by which the number of estrangements likely plays a causal role in facilitating depression. First, we found evidence that a high number of estrangements likely leads to lower levels of emotional stability, leading to depressive symptoms. Further, we found that a high number of estrangements could plausibly lead one to be anxious in his or her attachments to intimate others, leading, thus, to depressive symptoms. These analyses suggest that, in fact, via multiple paths, the number of estrangements one experiences likely plays a causal role in such ubiquitous emotional outcomes as depression.
Do Jilters Fare Better than the Jilted?
Another question that emerges regarding the relationship between estrangement frequency and adverse psychological outcomes pertains to the possible differentiated outcomes associated with being the one who cuts others off versus being the one who is getting jilted.
A recent study on parent/child estrangements (which are, unfortunately, quite common) partly addresses this question. In a 2018 article published in the Journal of Social Work Practice, Kylie Agllias studied the emotional, behavioral, and social outcomes of adult children who had initiated estrangements with their parents. This methodology allowed for an assessment of whether jilters in such scenarios fare alright. In fact, generally speaking, they don’t. Participants largely reported that they regularly longed for the social, emotional, and fiscal support that they’d had before the estrangements took place. These jilters also reported that the estrangements had negative impacts on their relationships with other family members, work colleagues, friends, and intimate partners.
While further research is needed to more fully flesh out the differentiated outcomes associated with the experiences of jilting versus being jilted, suffice it to say that someone who has many estrangements in his or her life as a result of his or her own conscious decisions to jilt others is not necessarily living the dream. In short, simply having a high number of estrangements in one’s world, regardless of the factors that sparked the estrangements, is associated with adverse social and emotional consequences.
Implications for Modern Living
These days, it is common practice for therapists to encourage people to cut out “toxic others” for the sake of their own mental health. Sure, this is understandable in many cases. This said, when it comes to social estrangements, people need to be extremely cautious in how they proceed. Given the small-scale social conditions that surrounded the lion’s share of human evolution, we evolved to be highly sensitive to slights that could damage our standing among familiar others in tight-knit groups.
Our evolved psychology was designed not for large-scale living among hundreds of thousands of strangers but, rather, our minds evolved to keep us connected to familiar others in small social circles (see my new book, Positive Evolutionary Psychology; Geher & Wedberg, 2020). Cutting others out of one’s life did not evolve as an optimal social strategy among our ancestors and this fact can be seen in the many adverse psychological consequences found among extreme estrangers today.
*Thanks to the statistical prowess of Vania Rolon!
NOTE: This article summarizes one of two studies that were described in our research article in Current Psychology. The other study, addressing the evolutionary psychology of forgiveness, is summarized in THIS Psychology Today post here.