Viktor Gladkov/Shutterstock
Source: Viktor Gladkov/Shutterstock

It’s never pleasant to be rejected, whether by a close romantic partner or by a stranger who just seems to shun you. It may be even worse when you're on the outs with an in-group.

Psychologists are seeking a better understanding of how people react to rejection now use several experimental methods to simulate rejection situations rather than relying on people’s own statements. In these experiments, researchers utilize a variety of scenarios in which a participant is deliberately left out of an interaction involving two other people. Investigators can then observe what people actually do and say in real time. The most recent approach also suggests how it’s possible to cope when you’re the target of rejection.

Kevin Betts, a psychologist at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, paired up with North Dakota State University’s Verlin Hinz to examine how to improve on a standard rejection paradigm known as the “In Game.” This is an experimental situation in which the participant’s job is to remain “in” the game as the power dynamics among three people evolve. Participants receive instructions letting them know that they must compete for limited resources, and that to succeed, they need to form a coalition with another player. Each player receives colored tokens that differ in how they can be used in the game. For example, a green token means you have a resource, and a red means you can force another player to turn a resource over. If you and another player agree to pool your resources, you can beat the third player. During the game, players turn over cards that represent an “event.” If the event requires you to have three green cards and you don’t, then you’re out of the game.

Other rejection simulations involve less intense interpersonal power plays: In the "train rejection" scenario, two supposed strangers talk to each other and leave the third person out. In Cyberball, you are the only participant, and you’re watching a computerized ball toss game where the ball never gets tossed to you, while two other "players" bat it around in front of your nose. Betts and Hinz modified the original version of the In Game so that the power dynamics would be more compelling, and so that the rejection of the third person by the other two would be especially acute. As they note, this game would serve as “a manipulation for interpersonal rejection … when one considers competitive situations or other situations in which coalitions are likely to arise… [providing a] particularly powerful or nuanced rejection experience” (p. 314). This experimental situation is similar to what happens when you’re being squeezed out of rewards at work, such as a promotion or bonus, by two fellow employees who decide to support each other at your expense. It may also represent what happens when you’re out with two friends, and they decide to buy each other drinks, but leave you with your own tab.

The participants in the Betts and Hinz study were 105 undergraduates at North Dakota State, with one-third of the participants assigned to the rejection condition and the remainder to the inclusion condition. In only 3 of the 35 sessions did the coalitions fail to form, meaning that these participants were more than ready to partner up at the expense of a third person’s feelings. The rules for the game are reasonably complex, as players receive those event cards telling them what they are supposed to do with their tokens. The event cards that manipulate rejection tell players that, when they draw the card, they have to “elect” another player to receive a resource token, or choose one of the 3 to lose a token. Thus, over the course of the game, two players can continually elect each other and leave that third player out. That third player is the target of rejection. After losing the game, the outcome for the rejected player is reasonably harsh: He or she is escorted out of the room.

Now let’s get to the psychological reactions that the rejected players experienced. It was clear that the manipulation worked: Rejected players were more likely to feel bad, as they had lower positive affect scores than included players. Across the board, on psychological need states, included players scored higher in general—higher on feelings of belonging, self-esteem, control, and even on having a meaningful existence. This last one is particularly intriguing: How could anyone’s feelings of meaning in life be so easily manipulated by an experimental situation? We’ll return to this question in a moment.

Reports from the participants certainly backed up the questionnaire findings. An included participant said, "Coalitions can make you feel good and positive about yourself,” and a rejected participant reported feeling increasingly powerless (p. 321). The included participants also stated that they felt the experience was more pleasant and satisfying than did the rejected players.

The experiment successfully demonstrated that the modified game did what it was supposed to do: For the most part, people who didn’t know each other at the start of the manipulation quickly formed alliances in which they deliberately left out another person. Even though the rewards were essentially meaningless, and winning the game had no real-world consequences, two people were happy to make another person feel terrible just by pairing up to share their limited resources. This outcome is an unfortunate reflection of reality, in which everyone from world leaders to coworkers will make deals that leave out an interested third party.

Let’s now return to the question of how to cope when you’re the target of rejection. It’s clear from the findings that rejection hurts, causing you to question your very existence, even when the rejection doesn’t “matter.” Knowing that rejection can do this to you, the best way you can cope is to bolster your internal sense of personal meaning. First, be certain that you didn’t do anything to merit the rejection, such as hurting someone else’s feelings or inadvertently snubbing others who reached out to you. If this is the case, then dig down deep and find a way to move past the rejection by reminding yourself about the people who do care for you. Rejection can make you feel "nonexistent," as it did for the participants in the North Dakota study. To get past that feeling, again, realize that there are plenty of other people for whom your existence is critical.

The other message of the Betts and Hinz study is that it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of rejecting people in order to promote your own self-interests. Try not to leave people out of the partnerships you forge, whether on the home front or at work. Fulfillment in relationships means that you’re able to recognize and support the humanity of others. As good as it feels to form strategic alliances, ask yourself whether that feeling is really worth the pain you create in those whom you leave behind.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Betts, K. R., & Hinsz, V. B. (2017). The (modified) in game: An experimental paradigm for manipulating interpersonal rejection. Small Group Research, 48(3), 311-335. doi:10.1177/1046496416687374

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