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Where Does Rejection Sensitivity Come From?

A new study explores possible developmental sources of rejection sensitivity.

Ganesvsk / Pixabay
Source: Ganesvsk / Pixabay

Most of us are, to a certain extent, afraid of rejection. But for some, this fear can be debilitating.

New research forthcoming in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science explores the developmental causes of what psychologists have termed "rejection sensitivity."

A team of researchers led by Ashley Araiza of Stony Brook University examined data from the Stony Brook Temperament Study — a longitudinal study examining early temperament as a forerunner to emotional and psychiatric disorders — to understand whether certain early childhood experiences could explain the development of rejection sensitivity in pre-adolescence and beyond.

They found that it could.

"Rejection sensitivity is the tendency for individuals to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and overreact to interpersonal rejection," state Araiza and her research team. "Existing theory presumes that early experiences of rejection cause rejection sensitivity, although few studies have assessed this prospectively ... We found that direct experiences of social acceptance, in the form of peer support at age 9, related negatively to rejection sensitivity in adolescence."

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers examined the data of 447 children who took part in the Stony Brook Temperament Study at three points in time: at age 6, age 9, and age 12. Different facets of the childhood experience were measured at each time point. At age 6, the researchers assessed parental acceptance and rejection, parents’ relationship quality, parents’ social support, as well as the observed and parent-reported negative affect of the child. At age 9, the researchers assessed child-reported parental acceptance/rejection, child-reported peer support, teacher-reported peer exclusion, as well as children’s negative affect (as reported by the parents and the child). Finally, at age 12, rejection sensitivity was assessed via a modified version of the Child Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire .

Three key findings emerged. First, the self-reported support children received from their peers at age 9 was significantly associated with rejection sensitivity at age 12. Second, the researchers found that higher-quality parental relationships at age 6 predicted less rejection sensitivity in pre-adolescence. Third, and perhaps most interesting, was the association researchers found between negative affect and rejection sensitivity.

The researchers write, "This is the first prospective study of which we are aware of the role of temperament in predicting rejection sensitivity. We observed that negative affect assessed as early as age 6 predicted rejection sensitivity assessed at age 12, a finding that contributes substantially to the rejection sensitivity literature, which has thus far primarily focused on interpersonal experiences of rejection as an antecedent to rejection sensitivity."

The researchers were equally surprised by what they did not find. For instance, in contrast to existing theories of rejection sensitivity, the researchers found no evidence to suggest that early childhood experiences of parental acceptance/rejection were predictive of subsequent rejection sensitivity. In other words, rejection sensitivity may have more to do with the role of peers in children's lives than with parents.

Facebook image: LightField Studios/Shutterstiock


Araiza, A. M., Freitas, A. L., & Klein, D. N. (2019). Social-Experience and Temperamental Predictors of Rejection Sensitivity: A Prospective Study. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550619878422.