Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Rejection and Discrimination Have Different Effects

How do reactions to rejection and discrimination differ?

If you decide to start blogging, you have to develop a thick skin.  Not everyone is going to like what you have to say, and the internet comments people give you are not always phrased in the nicest way.  Still, the negative comments can sting.  And that leads to an immediate sense of rejection.

 Not all forms of rejection are the same, though.  It is one thing to have someone attack the ideas you have put forward.  It is another thing entirely to think that you are being rejected based on some personal characteristic like race, gender, or religion.  In that case, the rejection slips into a feeling of discrimination.

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 Do people treat rejection and discrimination in the same way?

 This question was explored in a paper in the February, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Jeremy Jamieson, Katrina Koslov, Matthew Nock, and Wendy Berry Mendes. 

 In their study, participants were either black males or white females.  At the start of the study, participants selected an avatar to represent themselves in a chat room.  The avatar was the same race and gender as the participant.  Next, they were told that they were going to give a brief speech via webcam, and that the other participants were going to judge that speech.  They would be able to see the comments of the other participants as they spoke.

 In reality, the comments of the other participants were typed by the experimenter from a list.  All of the comments were negative and were designed to be relevant to what the participant said.  For example, if a participant made a comment about themselves, the comment might say, “Oh someone is feeling good about themselves today.” 

 For all participants, the evaluators were shown by avatars of the same gender.  However, half the participants were critiqued by avatars of the same race, while others were critiqued by avatars of a different race. 

 The experimenters took physiological measurements during the study. They measured things like blood pressure and cardiac output.  They also took cortisol measures.  Cortisol is a hormone that is released in stress situations and can be measured through a saliva sample.  The cortisol measures were taken before and after the speech.  The experimenters also watched the video of the speeches later and looked for signs of anger and shame

 In addition, there were three behavioral measures.  The experimenters measured participants’ ability to recall a story told at the beginning of the study.  They also used an emotional Stroop task.  In this task, participants see words related to positive and negative emotions printed in a font of a particular color.  Participants have to identify the color of the font as quickly as possible.  The longer it takes participants to identify the color, the more that they are paying attention to the emotion described by the word.

 Finally, the experimenters used a measure of risk taking called the Columbia Card Task.  In this measure, participants see a set of cards face-down and are told that they can turn over cards to try to gain as many points as possible.  Some of the cards allow participants to gain points, while others cause them to lose points.  Across trials, the decks vary in the number of negative cards that they are told are present as well as the size of the gains for the positive cards and the size of the losses for the negative cards.  Some decks have high rewards, while others have low rewards.  Some decks have small losses, while others have large losses.  This task is used to measure risk taking.

 The results of this study demonstrate that people treat rejection by a member of the same race differently from discrimination (defined as rejection by a member of a different race).

 Physiologically, when people are rejected by a member of the same race, they show an increase in blood pressure.  When people are rejected by a member of the opposite race, they show an increase in cardiac output (which is a response to a threat).  Participants rejected by a member of the same race show higher levels of cortisol than participants rejected by a member of the opposite race.  Participants rejected by members of the opposite race exhibit more anger than those rejected by members of the same race.

 Rejection and discrimination also have different behavioral effects.  There is a tendency for participants rejected by people of the same race to have worse memory for the story than those rejected by members of the opposite race.  This finding is consistent with research showing that stress and cortisol levels influence memory.

 Participants rejected by someone of the opposite race are slower to identify the font color for negative emotion words in the Stroop task than those rejected by someone of the same race.  That is, discrimination makes people pay more attention to negative emotions.

 Finally, participants rejected by someone of the opposite race are riskier in the card selection task than those rejected by someone of the same race.  That is, they select more cards from the decks, particularly when there is the possibility of getting large rewards.  This result suggests that discrimination increases people’s tendency to take risks more than rejection.

 This study does not have a neutral control condition, so it is hard to know whether the behavioral measures reflect increases in risk over a baseline or just a difference between rejection and discrimination. 

 What I find most interesting about these studies, though, is that the reaction to social rejection depends on whether it is interpreted as rejection or as discrimination.  Rejection creates stress.  Discrimination creates vigilance, and perhaps a tendency to be willing to take risks to get high rewards.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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