Editor's Note: This story was updated on 6/6/12, correcting a quote from Eric Wesselmann.
Feeling socially connected is important, no matter where you are from and research shows feeling disconnected can be very unsettling, even by strangers.
According to Eric Wesselmann, a continuing lecturer of psychological sciences, people yearn for a sense of belonging and social connections that are essential to survival through peoples happiness and health. Wesselmann has developed research showing forms that can mitigate ostracism – being ignored and excluded by a person or group.
“We all like to feel connected,” Wesselmann said. “A lot of people feel ostracized when strangers don’t even look at them.”
The research was based off of three conditions. The first condition focused on looking at someone walking by and smiling at them. The next was to simply look at someone in the eyes and nod. The last condition was the “air gaze condition” which was to look completely past someone at eye level as if they didn’t exist.
“ Witholding eye contact can be used as a subtle form of ostracism,” Wesselmann said. “People who were given the air-gaze felt more disconnected than the two acknowledged conditions, which felt more connected.”
Adam Waytz, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, has done research similar to Wesselmann’s and said being socially disconnected can cause someone to want to make other things human-like to feel a sense of connection.
“When you make people feel socially disconnected, it makes people socially hungry,” Waytz said. “When you’re hungry you search for food. That’s when you tend to humanize nonhuman things when you’re socially disconnected.”
Humanizing nonhuman-like objects include things such as avatars, pets, video game characters and others.
Wesselmann and Waytz have conducted research together in the sense of doing “some of the most cutting edge, novel work in social connection and disconnection,” and both believe this research will impact the world.
“What has come into focus in the last two years is peoples happiness and health,” Waytz said. “Feeling socially disconnected presents a health risk in obesity and smoking. This research is showing the vast importance of the need of feeling connected.”
Despite the differences in the environment, Wesselmann said this research could be used by anyone – from a small town to a big city. This is because, as Wesselmann said, being ostracized “is unsettling no matter where you are.”