The Ignored Mind

Intellectual abilities diminish when people feel socially excluded. Slow thinking outside the box. Shunned workers lose their smarts.

By Robin Poultney, published on November 1, 2002 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015

An isolated genius may be a creative powerhouse, but an ostracized
genius may be a stilted one, according to research suggesting that
intellectual abilities diminish when people feel socially

Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., of Case Western Reserve University,
argues that interpersonal rejection can dramatically reduce the capacity
for intelligent thought, raising the possibility that reasoning skills
evolved to help us navigate the complexities of social life rather than
help us solve technical problems.

In studies recently published in the
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
subjects were given false feedback after taking personality tests.
Members of one group were told that they would die alone, while others
were told to expect lasting friendships. Subjects primed for a solitary
life were able to remember simple information such as nonsensical
syllables, but they were significantly impaired in performing complex
reasoning tasks. They were also slower and less accurate in their
responses to a timed IQ test, a "dual deficit" reminiscent of the
cognitive impairment caused by certain head injuries, according to

In a related study, led by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., of San Diego
State University in California, "rejected" participants took greater
risks and made unhealthy choices, such as selecting a candy bar over a
low-fat snack and postponing preparation for an exam in favor of
short-term pleasures. This is contrary to expectations. "The seemingly
rational choice after any failure is to become more prudent and to take
better care of oneself," says Twenge.

The behaviors were not specifically attributable to depression or
anxiety, as subjects reported feeling stable moods throughout the

Both Twenge and Baumeister conclude that socially excluded
individuals are so busy trying to suppress emotional distress that they
are unable to engage in controlled thinking, leaving only automatic
processes unaffected.