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 November 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

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 excluded.

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 Baumeister.

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 experiment.

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.