Even though humans are highly social, it is impossible to interact with everyone all the time. This means that some level of rejection is an inevitable part of life. Nevertheless, rejection can become a problem when it is prolonged or consistent, when the relationship is important, or when the individual is highly sensitive to rejection. Rejection by an entire group of people can have especially negative effects, particularly when it results in social isolation.
The experience of rejection can lead to a number of adverse psychological consequences such as loneliness, reduced self-esteem, aggression, and depression. It can also lead to feelings of insecurity and a heightened sensitivity to future rejection.
Psychologists believe that simple contact or social interaction with others is not enough to fulfill this need. Instead, people have a strong motivational drive to form and maintain caring interpersonal relationships. People need both stable relationships and satisfying interactions with the people in those relationships. If either of these two ingredients is missing, people will begin to feel lonely and unhappy. Thus, rejection is a significant threat. In fact, the majority of human anxieties appear to reflect concerns over social exclusion.
Being a member of a group is also important for social identity, which is a key component of the self-concept. Mark Leary of Wake Forest University has suggested that the main purpose of self-esteem is to monitor social relations and detect social rejection. In this view, self-esteem is a sociometer which activates negative emotions when signs of exclusion appear.
Social psychological research confirms the motivational basis of the need for acceptance. Specifically, fear of rejection leads to conformity to peer pressure (sometimes called normative influence), and compliance to the demands of others. Our need for affiliation and social interaction appears to be particularly strong when we are under stress.
According to Karen Bierman of Pennsylvania State University, most children who are rejected by their peers display one or more of the following behavior patterns:
Bierman states that well-liked children show social savvy and know when and how to join play groups. Children who are at risk for rejection are more likely to barge in disruptively, or hang back without joining at all. Aggressive children who are athletic or have good social skills are likely to be accepted by peers, and they may become ringleaders in the harassment of less skilled children. Minority children, children with disabilities, or children who have unusual characteristics or behavior may face greater risks of rejection. Depending on the norms of the peer group, sometimes even minor differences among children lead to rejection or neglect. Children who are less outgoing or simply prefer solitary play are less likely to be rejected than children who are socially inhibited and show signs of insecurity or anxiety.
Peer rejection, once established, tends to be stable over time, and thus difficult for a child to overcome. Researchers have found that active rejection is more stable, more harmful, and more likely to persist after a child transfers to another school, than simple neglect. One reason for this is that peer groups establish reputational biases that act as stereotypes and influence subsequent social interaction. Thus, even when rejected and popular children show similar behavior and accomplishments, popular children are treated much more favorably.
Rejected children are likely to have lower self-esteem, and to be at greater risk for internalizing problems like depression. Some rejected children display externalizing behavior and show aggression rather than depression. The research is largely correlational, but there is evidence of reciprocal effects. This means that children with problems are more likely to be rejected, and this rejection then leads to even greater problems for them. Chronic peer rejection may lead to a negative developmental cycle that worsens with time.
Rejected children are more likely to be bullied and to have fewer friends than popular children, but these conditions are not always present. For example, some popular children do not have close friends, whereas some rejected children do. Peer rejection is believed to be less damaging for children with at least one close friend.
An analysis of 15 school shootings between 1995 and 2001 found that peer rejection was present in all but two of the cases (87%). The documented rejection experiences included both acute and chronic rejection and frequently took the form of ostracism, bullying, and romantic rejection. The authors stated that although it is likely that the rejection experiences contributed to the school shootings, other factors were also present, such as depression, poor impulse control, and other psychopathology.
There are programs available for helping children who suffer from social rejection. One large scale review of 79 controlled studies found that social skills training is very effective (r = .40 effect size), with a 70% success rate, compared to 30% success in control groups. There was a decline in effectiveness over time, however, with follow-up studies showing a somewhat smaller effect size (r = .35).
A common experimental technique is the "ball toss" paradigm, which was developed by Kip Williams and his colleagues at Purdue University. This procedure involves a group of three people tossing a ball back and forth. Unbeknownst to the actual participant, two members of the group are working for the experimenter and following a pre-arranged script. In a typical experiment, half of the subjects will be excluded from the activity after a few tosses and never get the ball again. Only a few minutes of this treatment are sufficient to produce negative emotions in the target, including anger and sadness. This effect occurs regardless of self-esteem and other personality differences.
A computerized version of the task known as "cyberball" has also been developed and leads to similar results. Surprisingly, people feel rejected even when they know they are only playing against the computer.
Gender differences have been found in these experiments. In one study, women showed greater nonverbal engagement whereas men disengaged faster and showed face-saving techniques, such as pretending to be uninterested. The researchers concluded that women seek to regain a sense of belonging whereas men are more interested in regaining self-esteem.
Researchers have also investigated how the brain responds to social rejection. A recent experiment using fMRI neuroimaging found that three regions become active when people are exposed to images depicting rejection themes (e.g. paintings by Edward Hopper). These areas are the posterior cingulate, the parahippocampal gyrus, and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Furthermore, individuals who are high in rejection sensitivity (see below) show less activity in the left prefrontal cortex and the right dorsal superior frontal gyrus, which may indicate less ability to regulate emotional responses to rejection.
A recent experiment at the University of California at Berkeley found that individuals with a combination of low self-esteem and low attentional control are more likely to exhibit eye-blink startle responses while viewing rejection themed images. These findings indicate that people who feel bad about themselves are especially vulnerable to rejection, but that people can also control and regulate their emotional reactions.
Romantic rejection is a painful, emotional experience that appears to trigger a response in the caudate nucleus of the brain, and associated dopamine and cortisol activity. Subjectively, rejected individuals experience a range of negative emotions, including frustration, intense anger, and eventually, resignation and despair.
Men are significantly more likely than women to react with rage and aggression when rejected. Every year over a million American women are stalked, and the majority are stalked by a former boyfriend, husband, or live-in partner. Eight out of ten women are physically attacked by their stalker. Researchers in a variety of countries have demonstrated that stalkers are more likely to be male, and that male stalkers are more likely to become violent.
One reason why romantic rejection is so common in society is a tendency called falling upward. People generally desire mates that are higher than themselves on such characteristics as status and physical attractiveness, but not ones who are lower. When someone falls in love with a person who has aspirations that are higher, that love is less likely to be reciprocated, potentially leading to rejection.
An early questionnaire measure of rejection sensitivity was developed by Albert Mehrabian. Mehrabian suggested that sensitive individuals are reluctant to express opinions, tend to avoid arguments or controversial discussions, are reluctant to make requests or impose on others, are easily being hurt by negative feedback from others, and tend to rely too much on familiar others and situations so as to avoid rejection.
More recently, Geraldine Downey and her colleagues at Columbia University refined the concept of rejection sensitivity and described it as the tendency to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and over-react to social rejection. Downey has demonstrated in the laboratory that, given a high level of rejection sensitivity, an ambiguous social interaction can be perceived as rejection. This can then lead to defensiveness and self-fulfilling prophecies that undermine social relationships.
Individual differences in rejection sensitivity are believed to be the result of previous rejection experiences, particularly childhood experiences with parents and peers. Attachment theory suggests that rejection from parents could lead to rejection sensitivity. Additionally, both retrospective and longitudinal research has found that peer rejection in children is associated with increased rejection sensitivity. Teasing and other forms of bullying appear to be especially likely to cause later difficulties.
Because of the association between rejection sensitivity and neuroticism, there is a likely genetic predisposition that makes people more vulnerable to rejection experiences and more likely to develop rejection sensitivity.