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Who Feels the Pain of Rejection--And Who Doesn't

How we respond to rejection says a lot about us

Last week, Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) sent a photo of, well, his wiener, to a college student he met online. He is the victim of his own bad behavior, but all the same, he is undoubtedly facing rejection from all sides. 

Politicians have to withstand constant criticism and rejection. People hate politicians even on good days. And for Anthony Weiner, these are not good days.

Weiner's situation highlights a key personality characteristic that deserves more attention: Rejection-sensitivity. How people respond to being rejected is a fairly stable personal characteristic that has important implications for work, love, and life.

Rejection-Sensitivity
Being rejected is much more traumatic for some people than others. People who are highly rejection-sensitive have had painful experiences of rejection that make them concerned with how likeable and accepted they are. For someone like Anthony Weiner, being low in rejection sensitivity would be a big advantage.

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If you look inside yourself, you may find that you know where you fall on the rejection-sensitivity spectrum. I think I know. And once you start thinking in these terms, you start noticing how people around you react to rejection.

People who are high in rejection-sensitivity often respond to rejection with hostility and anger. However, recent work by researchers at Columbia University suggests that rejection-sensitive people also jump at the opportunity to win over the people who have rejected them.

In a study by Rainer Romero, Geraldine Downey, Kavita Reddy and their colleagues, college students joined social groups online. Some students were rudely rejected when they tried to join the group (the experimenters were actually controlling the conversation). Not surprisingly, these students responded with hostility.

But here's where it gets interesting. Among those who were rudely rejected, rejection-sensitive people were more willing to do nice things for the group, like organize group meetings and cook dinner. They even agreed to spend more money on an in-person group meeting. Rejection-sensitive people showed similar responses to harsh rejection in online dating contexts.

Another follow-up study was inspired by American Idol, a TV show famous for harsh criticism and rejection. "From that study we learned that gaining acceptance is very important for rejection sensitive people," Dr. Romero told me. "Feeling rejected is more painful and threatening than it is to most people. So, they try hard not to be in that state of rejection and when they are, they want to make amends and repair the relationships if they can."

Bullying
One of the most potent tools in a bully's arsenal is rejecting other children and casting them out of social groups. Different children have very different responses to this kind of rejection.

Children who are low in rejection-sensitivity may be resilient in the face of bullying. Children who are high in rejection-sensitivity, on the other hand, may be in greater danger of becoming depressed, angry, or worse. However, bullying is a complex issue and no single personality trait can capture how people will react by itself.

Unfortunately, the rejection-sensitivity model suggests that being rejected can actually make a person more sensitive to rejection.

Bullying often happens online. Research shows that it doesn't much matter; online rejection can be just as painful as face-to-face rejection. (This research has been conducted at Columbia and by Kip Williams of Purdue University.)

When a child is bullied too much, the results can be tragic. In these situations, ironically, bullies become pariahs, and experience a level of societal rejection much worse than Anthony Weiner has seen. But it's not always fair to assume that the bullies deserve this fate, as a poignant series of articles about the complicated aftermath of bullying, by Emily Bazelon, points out

Anthony Weiner's fate is yet to be decided, but he may be feeling a bit more sensitive to rejection than he used to. Perhaps he should consider buying his wife a gift. Like some flowers. Or, if he really wants to make amends, Holland.

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Nate Kornell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Williams College.

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