Why does stigmatisation matter

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A fifth question concerns why stigmatisation has such a socially and personally significant effect on people. From a detached point of view, one might ask why experiences of the kinds illustrated above should have an impact but clearly they do. Simply reading the stigmatising experiences of other people often provokes an emotional response in the reader. Why is this so?

A very useful approach in this respect has been provided by Baumeister's (Baumeister & Tice, 1990; Leary, 1990) Social Exclusion Theory (SET). SET holds that a primary source of anxiety is potential exclusion from important social groups. It is based on three propositions that:

1 humans, as a species, possess a fundamental motive to avoid exclusion from social groupings;

2 much social behaviour reflects attempts to improve the chances of inclusion;

3 negative effect (including loneliness and depression) results when a person does not or cannot achieve a desired level of social inclusion.

In a recent set of experimental studies, Baumeister and colleagues (Baumeister et al., 2002; Sommer & Baumeister, 2002; Twenge et al., 2003) have demonstrated that the induction of beliefs about social exclusion and future loneliness can have a range of cognitive, emotional and behavioural consequences.

In a similar fashion, Hagerty and colleagues (Hagerty & Patusky, 1995; Hagerty et al., 1996; Hagerty & Williams, 1999) argue that the experience of personal involvement in a group, a sense of belonging, is a significant determinant of well-being. In their model, belonging has two attributes: being valued or needed by others and being congruent with others through shared characteristics. Depressed mood is a likely result when a sense of belonging is absent. Lee and Robbins (1995; 1998) have explored the role of social connectedness, defined as beliefs about enduring relationships with other people in general, rather than with particular individuals. It seems that stigmatisation matters to people because the rejection, or threat of rejection, taps into a fundamental human anxiety. Without good social connections, we are all more physically vulnerable.

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