"While everyone accepts that physical pain is real, people are tempted to think that social pain is just in their heads," said Matthew D. Lieberman, one of the paper's three authors and an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA. "But physical and social pain may be more similar than we realized."
"In the English language we use physical metaphors to describe social pain like 'a broken heart' and 'hurt feelings,'" said Naomi I. Eisenberger, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate in social psychology and the study's lead author. "Now we see that there is good reason for this."
Eisenberger and Lieberman used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor brain activity in 13 UCLA undergraduates while the students played a computer ball-tossing game designed to provoke feelings of social exclusion.
In Cyberball, two computer figures are able to throw a virtual ball to each other and to the game's human player. Although the activities of the figures are entirely computer-generated, the undergraduates were led to believe that they corresponded to other student players elsewhere.
"It's really the most boring game you can imagine, except at one point one of the two computer people stop throwing the ball to the real player," Lieberman said.
In the first of three rounds, experimenters instructed UCLA undergraduates just to watch the two other players because "technical difficulties" prevented them from participating. In the second round, the students were included in the ball-tossing game, but they were excluded from the last three-quarters of the third round by the other players. While the undergraduates later reported feeling excluded in the third round, fMRI scans revealed elevated activity during both the first and third rounds in the anterior cingulate
Contact: Meg Sullivan
University of California - Los Angeles