Do we need to be told that rejection hurts?

https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/rejection

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The link between physical and social pain might sound surprising, but it makes biological sense, DeWall says. “Instead of creating an entirely new system to respond to socially painful events, evolution simply co-opted the system for physical pain,” he says. “Given the shared overlap, it follows that if you numb people to one type of pain, it should also numb them to the other type of pain.”

Lashing out

Being on the receiving end of a social snub causes a cascade of emotional and cognitive consequences, researchers have found. Social rejection increases anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness. It reduces performance on difficult intellectual tasks, and can also contribute to aggression and poor impulse control, as DeWall explains in a recent review (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2011). Physically, too, rejection takes a toll. People who routinely feel excluded have poorer sleep quality, and their immune systems don’t function as well as those of people with strong social connections, he says.

Even brief, seemingly innocuous episodes of rejection can sting. In one recent study, Williams, Eric Wesselmann, PhD, of Purdue University, and colleagues found that when participants passed a stranger who appeared to look “through” them rather than meeting their gaze, they reported less social connection than did people who made eye contact with a passing stranger (Psychological Science, 2012).

In fact, it’s remarkably hard to find situations in which rejection isn’t painful, Williams says. He wondered whether people would be hurt if they were rejected by a person or group they disliked. Using his Cyberball model, he found that African- American students experienced the same pain of rejection when they were told that the people rejecting them were members of the Ku Klux Klan, a racist group. In other studies, participants earned money when they were rejected, but not when they were accepted. The payments did nothing to dampen the pain of exclusion. “No matter how hard you push it, people are hurt by ostracism,” he says.

Fortunately, most people recover almost immediately from these brief episodes of rejection. If a stranger fails to look you in the eye, or you’re left out of a game of Cyberball, you aren’t likely to dwell on it for long. But other common rejections — not being invited to a party, or being turned down for a second date — can cause lingering emotions.

After the initial pain of rejection, Williams says, most people move into an “appraisal stage,” in which they take stock and formulate their next steps. “We think all forms of ostracism are immediately painful,” he says. “What differs is how long it takes to recover, and how one deals with the recovery.”

People often respond to rejection by seeking inclusion elsewhere. “If your sense of belonging and self-esteem have been thwarted, you’ll try to reconnect,” says Williams. Excluded people actually become more sensitive to potential signs of connection, and they tailor their behavior accordingly. “They will pay more attention to social cues, be more likable, more likely to conform to other people and more likely to comply with other people’s requests,” he says.

Yet others may respond to rejection with anger and lashing out. If someone’s primary concern is to reassert a sense of control, he or she may become aggressive as a way to force others to pay attention. Sadly, that can create a downward spiral. When people act aggressively, they’re even less likely to gain social acceptance.

What causes some people to become friendlier in response to rejection, while others get angry? According to DeWall, even a glimmer of hope for acceptance can make all the difference. In a pair of experiments, he and his colleagues found that students who were accepted by no other participants in group activities behaved more aggressively — feeding hot sauce to partners who purportedly disliked spicy foods, and blasting partners with uncomfortably loud white noise through headphones — than students accepted by just one of the other participants (Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2010).

Social pain relief

It may take time to heal from a bad break-up or being fired, but most people eventually get over the pain and hurt feelings of rejection. When people are chronically rejected or excluded, however, the results may be severe. Depression, substance abuse and suicide are not uncommon responses. “Long-term ostracism seems to be very devastating,” Williams says. “People finally give up.”

In that case, psychologists can help people talk through their feelings of exclusion, DeWall says.

“A lot of times, these are things people don’t want to talk about,” he says. And because rejected people may adopt behaviors, such as aggression, that serve to further isolate them, psychologists can also help people to act in ways that are more likely to bring them social success.

The pain of non-chronic rejection may be easier to alleviate. Despite what the fMRI scanner says, however, popping two Tylenols probably isn’t the most effective way to deal with a painful episode of rejection. Instead, researchers say, the rejected should seek out healthy, positive connections with friends and family.

That recommendation squares with the neural evidence that shows positive social interactions release opioids for a natural mood boost, Eisenberger says. Other activities that produce opioids naturally, such as exercise, might also help ease the sore feelings that come with rejection.

Putting things into perspective also helps, Leary says. True, rejection can sometimes be a clue that you behaved badly and should change your ways. But frequently, we take rejection more personally than we should. “Very often we have that one rejection, maybe we didn’t get hired for this job we really wanted, and it makes us feel just lousy about our capabilities and ourselves in general,” Leary says. “I think if people could stop overgeneralizing, it would take a lot of the angst out of it.”

Next time you get passed over for a job or dumped by a romantic partner, it may help to know that the sting of rejection has a purpose. That knowledge may not take away the pain, but at least you know there’s a reason for the heartache. “Evolutionarily speaking, if you’re socially isolated you’re going to die,” Williams says. “It’s important to be able to feel that pain.”


Kirsten Weir is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

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The content I just read: IS HELPFUL IS NOT HELPFUL

The link between physical and social pain might sound surprising, but it makes biological sense, DeWall says. “Instead of creating an entirely new system to respond to socially painful events, evolution simply co-opted the system for physical pain,” he says. “Given the shared overlap, it follows that if you numb people to one type of pain, it should also numb them to the other type of pain.”

Lashing out

Being on the receiving end of a social snub causes a cascade of emotional and cognitive consequences, researchers have found. Social rejection increases anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness. It reduces performance on difficult intellectual tasks, and can also contribute to aggression and poor impulse control, as DeWall explains in a recent review (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2011). Physically, too, rejection takes a toll. People who routinely feel excluded have poorer sleep quality, and their immune systems don’t function as well as those of people with strong social connections, he says.

Even brief, seemingly innocuous episodes of rejection can sting. In one recent study, Williams, Eric Wesselmann, PhD, of Purdue University, and colleagues found that when participants passed a stranger who appeared to look “through” them rather than meeting their gaze, they reported less social connection than did people who made eye contact with a passing stranger (Psychological Science, 2012).

In fact, it’s remarkably hard to find situations in which rejection isn’t painful, Williams says. He wondered whether people would be hurt if they were rejected by a person or group they disliked. Using his Cyberball model, he found that African- American students experienced the same pain of rejection when they were told that the people rejecting them were members of the Ku Klux Klan, a racist group. In other studies, participants earned money when they were rejected, but not when they were accepted. The payments did nothing to dampen the pain of exclusion. “No matter how hard you push it, people are hurt by ostracism,” he says.

Fortunately, most people recover almost immediately from these brief episodes of rejection. If a stranger fails to look you in the eye, or you’re left out of a game of Cyberball, you aren’t likely to dwell on it for long. But other common rejections — not being invited to a party, or being turned down for a second date — can cause lingering emotions.

After the initial pain of rejection, Williams says, most people move into an “appraisal stage,” in which they take stock and formulate their next steps. “We think all forms of ostracism are immediately painful,” he says. “What differs is how long it takes to recover, and how one deals with the recovery.”

People often respond to rejection by seeking inclusion elsewhere. “If your sense of belonging and self-esteem have been thwarted, you’ll try to reconnect,” says Williams. Excluded people actually become more sensitive to potential signs of connection, and they tailor their behavior accordingly. “They will pay more attention to social cues, be more likable, more likely to conform to other people and more likely to comply with other people’s requests,” he says.

Yet others may respond to rejection with anger and lashing out. If someone’s primary concern is to reassert a sense of control, he or she may become aggressive as a way to force others to pay attention. Sadly, that can create a downward spiral. When people act aggressively, they’re even less likely to gain social acceptance.

What causes some people to become friendlier in response to rejection, while others get angry? According to DeWall, even a glimmer of hope for acceptance can make all the difference. In a pair of experiments, he and his colleagues found that students who were accepted by no other participants in group activities behaved more aggressively — feeding hot sauce to partners who purportedly disliked spicy foods, and blasting partners with uncomfortably loud white noise through headphones — than students accepted by just one of the other participants (Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2010).

Social pain relief

It may take time to heal from a bad break-up or being fired, but most people eventually get over the pain and hurt feelings of rejection. When people are chronically rejected or excluded, however, the results may be severe. Depression, substance abuse and suicide are not uncommon responses. “Long-term ostracism seems to be very devastating,” Williams says. “People finally give up.”

In that case, psychologists can help people talk through their feelings of exclusion, DeWall says.

“A lot of times, these are things people don’t want to talk about,” he says. And because rejected people may adopt behaviors, such as aggression, that serve to further isolate them, psychologists can also help people to act in ways that are more likely to bring them social success.

The pain of non-chronic rejection may be easier to alleviate. Despite what the fMRI scanner says, however, popping two Tylenols probably isn’t the most effective way to deal with a painful episode of rejection. Instead, researchers say, the rejected should seek out healthy, positive connections with friends and family.

That recommendation squares with the neural evidence that shows positive social interactions release opioids for a natural mood boost, Eisenberger says. Other activities that produce opioids naturally, such as exercise, might also help ease the sore feelings that come with rejection.

Putting things into perspective also helps, Leary says. True, rejection can sometimes be a clue that you behaved badly and should change your ways. But frequently, we take rejection more personally than we should. “Very often we have that one rejection, maybe we didn’t get hired for this job we really wanted, and it makes us feel just lousy about our capabilities and ourselves in general,” Leary says. “I think if people could stop overgeneralizing, it would take a lot of the angst out of it.”

Next time you get passed over for a job or dumped by a romantic partner, it may help to know that the sting of rejection has a purpose. That knowledge may not take away the pain, but at least you know there’s a reason for the heartache. “Evolutionarily speaking, if you’re socially isolated you’re going to die,” Williams says. “It’s important to be able to feel that pain.”


Kirsten Weir is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

RELATED ARTICLES

The content I just read: IS HELPFUL IS NOT HELPFUL

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