The Pain of Rejection (and How We Justify Dishing It Out)

Research on the lengths we'll go to avoid feeling bad about leaving someone out.

Posted Oct 04, 2015

Source: FeyginFoto/Shutterstock

Martine* has a two-year-old daughter. “I get so worried when we go to play with other toddlers," she says. “I know this is the age of parallel play, but every time another kid won’t let her play with their toy, I feel a stab of pain. I’m worried she’ll feel left out.” It’s interesting to hear Martine talk about this concern, since she is a warm and charming woman with many friends. When she first told me about it, I wondered if she was worried that her daughter would feel something she had felt as a child. But no, she tells me, "I wasn’t left out. I just worried about it all the time."

Researchers have provided evidence for what you and I already know: Being ostracized, ignored, or excluded by a group to which we would like to belong, or have already been part of, is not good for our psyches.

When we are ostracized, our self-esteem plummets. We lose a sense of belonging, which is extremely important to emotional well-being. Feelings of rejection or being ignored lead to irritability, anger, unhappiness and depression. Researchers have shown that actual physical changes in our bodies contribute to these painful emotions.

Many studies have gathered data about the physiological and psychological results of ostracism from participants in Cyberball, a virtual ball game. Manipulating how often a player gets the ball, for example, in a three-person game—directing the ball to one person a third of the time, or only sending it to them once at the beginning of the game and then never again—researchers have studied more than 5,000 players. They have found that rejected or excluded players consistently show elevated blood pressure and stress hormones. Perhaps even more interesting, the regions of their brain connected to physical pain are activated. In other words, not only do players who feel ostracized by the other players have the physical symptoms that go along with anger and irritation, but they also feel actual pain over being left out.

But what about the ostracizers? Do they get off scot free? Or does something happen to them as well?

According to existing research, the motivation for ostracizing is significant. Although we might like to think that we would never intentionally hurt someone else, studies show that we may be more capable of doing something unkind than we like to imagine. (A classic study from the 1960’s, which is the subject of a new movie, Experimenter, suggests that we may be deluding ourselves about this. My PT colleague Glenn Geher describes the classic experiment and his own research on the subject in a recent post.)

Studies show that we are more comfortable excluding someone if they seem unlikeable or incompetent, or when we feel pressure from an authority figure or group leader to ostracize them. Psychologically, we may simply be letting ourselves off the hook. We tell ourselves that we are not responsible for our bad behavior—we are just doing what we are supposed to do, or perhaps the victim “deserved” or “was asking” to be left out.

James Wirth, a social psychologist at Ohio State University, and two colleagues, Michael Bernstein and Angie LeRoy, have just published a study which they hope will lead to some answers to these questions. They have developed a game in which participants ostracize others without being explicitly told to do so—thus the ostracizers have to take more responsibility for their behavior. Their test format involves a computer game in which players participate in a virtual group to perform word games. The question the research team asked was whether a poorly-performing virtual participant would be considered a burden to the other players and be ostracized as a result. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they found that players did tend to reject the "player" who consistently underperformed, and players said that they would not choose him or her for future games.

Even more interesting, participants also actually disliked this "player"—even though they had never met and had no other information about what they were like.

Thus it appears that although the players rejected the poor performer voluntarily, they found a way to avoid feeling guilty: It was the victim’s fault that he or she was being rejected.

We know that this is a common technique used when thinking about enemies during wartime, to help make soldiers forget that they are dealing with and killing other human beings. “It’s their fault” alleviates guilt and pain for behavior that might otherwise be unacceptable.

But how often do we do this kind of thing in our own lives? How often do we act unkindly or hurtfully towards another person and then tell ourselves that it was their fault, that if they hadn’t behaved, dressed, or acted as they did, we would never have done such a thing.

It’s easy to assume that those who ostracize are “mean girls” or even psychopaths, but are they always? How often do we make assessments about a person based on a single piece of information, like hair or skin color, the clothes they wear or the car they drive, their accent, or where they went to school? And while these snap decisions about who we will connect with and reject might feel fine in the moment, what are the longer-term consequences?

Wirth and his colleagues hope to use their new game to study what happens to the body and mind of those who ostracize others, to understand a little better what goes on before, during, and after we reject someone else. It promises to be fascinating (and perhaps disturbing) research.

* Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.

Please note: I love to know what you think about what I’ve written, so please leave your comments below, and if you have questions about the content or the ideas in this or any other post, put them in your comments! If you’d like to get feedback from other commenters, feel free to ask them questions as well. However, it is not possible for me to respond to individual requests for personal advice through email or the Internet. Thanks so much for understanding. DB

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