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The Harvard Horror

Why dumping people puts you in the dumps.

When a thin envelope arrives from the Harvard admissions office, friends often swoop in with emotional support. But do we ever think to comfort the admissions officers? Rejecting people is hard, isolating work, and those who do it a lot suffer negative effects, both physically and emotionally.

Connecting with others is a basic human drive. Those who are ostracized respond by trying to make friends with new people. But what about the ostracizers? Do they also reach out after rejecting someone? Research from Sun Yat-Sen University in China finds that rejecting actually reduces the desire to affiliate with new people, thanks to cognitive dissonance: The act of pushing people away clashes with one's basic desire to affiliate, so the naysayer convinces himself that human connection isn't so important after all.

When participants turned down an offer of friendship or wrote a rejection letter to a job candidate, they became less willing to work with partners (vs. solo) on a task and less interested in joining a student group. The dissonance was stronger in women, because men feel more comfortable criticizing others and have less need for affiliation to begin with.

The shutting down of the social self is unhealthy for regular rejecters, according to Xinyue Zhou. The Chinese team has preliminary evidence that HR managers and other frequent nixers suffer high levels of fatigue, insomnia, headaches, and anxiety. Zhou's advice: Distance yourself from the dirty deeds. Marlyn McGrath, the director of admissions for Harvard College, says, "It's very painful for members of my staff" when candidates they identify with aren't admitted. But "you know that you're part of a large committee, and that has some protective value."