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Why Being Rejected by Strangers Hurts So Much

Unhappiness driven by the expectation of future rejection.

Key points

  • Rejection by strangers in the here and now could signify that the future will bring more rejections.
  • Being rejected in the lab generally failed to produce emotional reactions, whereas imaginary rejections did.
  • People imagine that rejection will bring a wave of bad feelings.
LoloStock on Shutterstock
Source: LoloStock on Shutterstock

My lab conducted studies on interpersonal rejection for two decades. Things were going well, but one thing puzzled me.

In the lab, we found that being rejected by another person had reliable and big effects on people’s behavior. But why? It’s just strangers meeting in the lab. Their rejection will have zero consequences after they leave the lab.

In one of our procedures, we recruited half a dozen participants who didn’t know each other, had them chat for a while to get acquainted, and then asked them to list the two people they’d most like to pair off with for the next task.

By random assignment, some people were told that no one had chosen them. (In the control condition, people were told that everyone had chosen them.) Many experiments have used this procedure successfully.

Although the emotional reactions we had predicted never materialized, behavioral changes were substantial. People who were rejected became more aggressive, less helpful, more self-destructive, and more.

Although the results were strong and dovetailed with other manipulations, I always wondered: Why does it matter that no one chose you? This is a group of people you don’t know and may never meet again. Nothing is at stake. It’s just an experiment. Even their impression of you is hardly based on a thorough knowledge of you, rather just a fleeting conversation. (It shouldn’t affect your self-esteem).

And in fact, a meta-analysis confirmed that laboratory rejections do not reliably reduce self-esteem—probably because many people have strong psychological defenses for their self-esteem (Blackhart et al., 2009.) There seems to be no reason to care. But apparently, people did care enough to produce sweeping changes in behavior.

The answer, or at least a big part of it, emerged recently from Hallgeir Sjåstad and colleagues (2021). (I was involved, but the idea was entirely Sjåstad’s.) True, there is nothing at stake and no practical consequences from being rejected. But people’s reactions to the present often invoke feelings about the future.

Being rejected now by strangers could signify that the future will contain more rejections, and perhaps ones with more serious consequences. How you spend the rest of the experimental session may be trivial, but no one wants to look ahead to a future of being alone.

To test this, Sjåstad’s group recruited 700 research participants and randomly assigned them to either rejection or acceptance. In keeping with the new trends in social psychology, we abandoned the procedure of having people come to the laboratory and interact in a live fashion.

Instead, people engaged in a guided imagination exercise (online). They read a scenario about being new on a job, imagined themselves involved in it, and rewrote it in their own words.

For half, they imagined that they tried hard to get along and fit in, but their co-workers did not accept them. They ended up being left out and ignored by everyone. In contrast, the acceptance condition involved imagining oneself being welcomed into the work team and getting along well with them.

Imagining rejection made people feel bad. They reported lower happiness, as compared with people who had imagined being accepted and welcomed into the work team. Crucially, their unhappiness was based on expected future rejections.

The people who had gone through the rejection experience were more likely than others to say they expected to be rejected by someone (a real person this time) in the next few weeks. The more they said they expected a real-life rejection, the unhappier they were.

That solves the puzzle. Being rejected by strangers in a one-shot lab study has no practical consequences, and so it doesn’t matter. But it bothers people as a sign of their possible future.

An interesting twist on this: Live rejection experiences in the lab generally fail to produce emotional reactions, whereas imaginary ones do. People imagine that rejection will bring a wave of bad feelings.

Indeed, when we started the research back in the 1990s, our theory was that rejection would cause high emotional distress, and that’s what would lead to changes in behavior. We had to abandon that theory because it failed repeatedly.

It seems that people’s immediate reaction to rejection is a feeling of being emotionally numb, most likely because it resembles a physical shock reaction. But people don’t remember this, and so when they imagine rejection, they imagine they would be upset. (After all, it’s hard to remember not feeling anything.) And so, the imagined reaction is much more emotional than the actual one.

The implications of this may go far beyond rejection. Could there be a general pattern in which responses to right-now events are based on what could happen in the future? We evolved from animals who live almost entirely in the here and now, so there is not much evolutionary preparation for the human pattern of thinking about the future.

Human emotions may have a strong future component, which is likely to have been underappreciated. Most theorists (myself included!) have tended to focus on how emotion shapes and mediates reactions to things happening in the present.

But because humans can imagine the future in detail, including imagining multiple possibilities, they can have reactions to them as well. Indeed, that is crucial for making decisions and plans.

Antonio Damasio’s (1994) observations found that people who lacked emotions due to brain damage could often think about the future thoroughly and precisely, including mapping out different options—but they found it hard to choose one over another.

That is precisely what simple emotions are needed for: This outcome is good, that one bad. It is even plausible that people use their emotional system far more for thinking about the future than for reacting to the present.

LinkedIn/Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Blackhart, G. C., Nelson, B. C., Knowles, M. L., & Baumeister, R. F. (2009). Rejection elicits emotional reactions but neither causes immediate distress nor lowers self-esteem: A meta-analytic review of 192 studies on social exclusion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13, 269-309. doi: 10.1177/1088868309346065

Damasio, A.R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Avon Books.

Sjåstad, H., Zhang, M., Masvie, A., & Baumeister, R.F. (2021). Social exclusion reduces happiness by creating expectations of future rejection. Self & Identity, 20, 116-125. Doi: 10.1080/15298868.2020.1779119

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