Putting ostracism into perspective: Young children tell more mentalistic stories after exclusion, but not when anxious.


Much is known about when children acquire an understanding of mental states, but few, if any, experiments identify social contexts in which children tend to use this capacity and dispositions that influence its usage. Social exclusion is a common situation that compels us to reconnect with new parties, which may crucially involve attending to those parties’ mental states. Across two studies, this line of inquiry was extended to typically developing preschoolers (Study 1) and young children with and without anxiety disorder (AD) (Study 2). Children played the virtual game of toss ‘Cyberball’ ostensibly over the Internet with two peers who first played fair (inclusion), but eventually threw very few balls to the child (exclusion). Before and after Cyberball, children in both studies completed stories about peer-scenarios. For Study 1, 36 typically developing 5-year-olds were randomly assigned to regular exclusion (for no apparent reason) or accidental exclusion (due to an alleged computer malfunction). Compared to accidental exclusion, regular exclusion led children to portray story-characters more strongly as intentional agents (intentionality), with use of more mental state language (MSL), and more between-character affiliation in post-Cyberball stories. For Study 2, 20 clinically referred 4 to 8-year-olds with AD and 15 age- and gender-matched non-anxious controls completed stories before and after regular exclusion. While we replicated the post regular-exclusion increase of intentional and MSL portrayals of story-characters among non-anxious controls, anxious children exhibited a decline on both dimensions after regular exclusion. We conclude that exclusion typically induces young children to mentalize, enabling more effective reconnection with others. However, excessive anxiety may impair controlled mentalizing, which may, in turn, hamper effective reconnection with others after exclusion.