Historically, it was life or death. Today, it's not much better.
Occasionally, people you know “cut someone off," using such phrases as “that person’s dead to me”; “I will NEVER talk to him again!”; or “she’s invisible.” Sometimes a person feels so slighted by another individual as to conclude that this other person (the slighter) is no longer to be treated as a person. Of course, cutting someone off can wreak havoc on many people's social lives, as exemplified by the following kinds of scenarios:
- Oh, he is invited to the party? How could Steve have invited him!? Steve knows what he did to me! Not only am I not going to Steve’s party, I’m not inviting Steve to my next party. I may not even stay friends with Steve!
- Don’t make me sit next to Sally at the meeting, please! Ever since what happened, she no longer talks to me and it’s always really uncomfortable.
- I forbid you to see your cousin Frank! You know what he did last summer—that was such an insult to me and to all of us! SO disrespectful. How could you possibly still love me and remain close with him? You have to choose!
The Evolutionary Reasoning of "The Cut Off"
Social ostracism of any kind is difficult and uncomfortable to manage. It makes for difficult family relations. It makes it hard to plan weddings. It’s bad.
But under ancestral conditions, it was worse. For the lion’s share of human evolution, social worlds rarely exceeded 200 people. And folks had to deal with the same 200 people each and every day (see Dunbar, 1992). Today you could pick up and move to Chicago and start anew. That kind of thing just wasn't an option under ancestral conditions.
Historically, getting kicked out of one’s band would have caused the most dire of consequences. Being cut off from a small number of folks in a group of 200 could easily lead to being cut out by a larger subset of individuals over time. Having important social connections removed could have meant death and/or a major lack of reproductive opportunities—both of which are evolutionary dead-ends.
Human social psychology is, thus, highly sensitive to markers of social alienation. Signs that one is “cut out” from others—not being invited to the same party that everyone else is invited to, for instance—are signs that create disproportionate levels of social anxiety.
Given this evolved psychology (see Geher, 2014
) that we all share, cutting someone out of one’s social world can be an effective strategy at making someone feel really bad about him or herself. Cutting others off is a social strategy that plays off our evolved psychology.
Forgiveness: An Evolved Alternative
The psychology of defining others as friend or foe connects strongly with human moral emotions—a set of emotional states that evolved largely to help people stay strongly connected to others in ancestral bands (see Trivers, 1985). These include such states as remorse, shame, and regret—strong emotional states that motivate people to engage in “reparative altruism” to try to repair things with those whom you slighted.
For example, if I unwittingly say something that Joe takes as an insult to his whole family, and Joe expresses outrage publicly about this, I may feel ashamed. That feeling may motivate me to engage in such reparative behaviors as apologizing and may lead to such language on my part as “My bad!”; “I didn’t mean it!”; “How can I make it up to you?”; or, “Please forgive me!” Such behavior and language is designed to avoid a “You’re dead to me” scenario and keep one connected with the broader social group.
Forgiveness is an important behavior related to dealing with such social situations. When someone feels slighted and expresses outrage as a result, the slighter, who may feel shame and remorse, will often take steps to seek forgiveness.
There are important benefits to forgiving. First, forgiving others has the potential to raise one’s reputation as being other-oriented. When done carefully and in a way that doesn’t make one look like a punching bag in the broader group, it’s a signal that one is kind and highly trustworthy—and that one has the interests of the broader social group at heart. These are all qualities that we value in others—especially those with leadership positions. Research also shows that it feels good to forgive (see Gorsuch & Hao, 1993), suggesting that there must have been real benefits to our ancestors who were forgivers.
As you get older, you come closer to having “seen it all.” I’m 45 and I can confidently say that I’ve seen at least a good bit. The social cut-off is one of the most difficult things to deal with in all social contexts. From an evolutionary perspective, we can understand why people implement it. But an evolutionary perspective also sheds light on a more productive approach to dealing with being slighted in social situations. When done well, forgiveness ends up not only keeping a social circle intact, but has the capacity to raise the status level and respect that people feel for the forgiver. There are good evolution-based reasons for the belief that to forgive is divine.
Are there people in your world that you’re cut off from? Do you have folks in your social circles who have vowed not to speak to someone else again—ever? From an evolutionary perspective, remember, perfection evades each and every one of us. Maybe it’s time to pick up that phone and say. "I know that 20 years ago we concluded that we’d never talk to each other again, but how about we bury those hatchets? We’re not getting any younger.” At the end of the day, having fewer people out there whom you have “cut off”—for whatever reasons—can only add to a more positive life.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.
Gorsuch, R. L. & Hao, J. Y. (1993) Forgiveness: An exploratory factor analysis and its relationship to religious variables, Review of Religious Research, 34, 351-363.
Trivers, R. (1985). Social evolution. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.