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Getting Rejected or Excluded: Can It Make You Smarter?

Rejection can make you sensitive in a smart way

Here at Living Single, we have often discussed the pain of getting excluded because you are single. Experiences of exclusion and rejection are, of course, not specific to single people. I doubt that anyone makes it through life without such experiences.

In social psychology, one of the hottest topics is the study of reactions to getting excluded, ostracized, rejected, or discriminated against. How your reaction to these experiences plays out over the long term depends on lots of different factors. In the short term, though, one thing is abundantly clear: Getting rejected or excluded hurts. The experience of "hurt feelings" may be more about interpersonal exclusion and rejection than anything else. People who have been interpersonally marginalized often feel other kinds of bad feelings as well, such as sadness, anger, and wounded self-esteem.

Perhaps surprisingly, not all of the consequences of these painful experiences are bad. In a simple study, participants were randomly assigned to relive, by writing about it, one of three kinds of experiences: (1) a time when they felt rejected or excluded, (2), a time they felt accepted or included, or (3) the previous morning. (The last one was a control or comparison condition.) Then they were given a difficult test of their interpersonal sensitivity - a test of whether they could figure out which smiles were genuine and which were phony. All of the participants watched videotapes of 20 smiles - 10 genuine and 10 faked.

The participants who had just relived a rejection or exclusion experience were better than the participants in the other two conditions at knowing which smiles were sincere and which were phony. The research did not examine why this occurred. The authors speculated that being rejected motivates people to look for opportunities to be accepted again, and only the genuine smiles are likely to be indicative of genuine opportunities.

I don't think the extra interpersonal intelligence that you get from being rejected makes up for the pain involved, but it is interesting. We often think that nonverbal sensitivity is a like a trait - we each have a certain amount of it, and that amount does not vary. In fact, though, how good we are at reading others can depend on our own momentary feelings and motivations.

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