The Serious Side Effects of Small Rejections

Why do we care whether he's into us even when we're not into him? And why do we get so upset if we're not included in a group lunch, even when we know it's probably just an oversight? And what about those people who hate the whole idea of Valentine's Day, yet still feel bad if they aren't asked out at all? Turns out, there are good evolutionary reasons for our inability to brush off even the slightest slight. To survive, it was better for our ancestors be part of a group than left out in the cold to forage on their own.

But in a modern world, our hypersensitivity to rejection can have surprisingly destructive consequences. When we're socially or romantically excluded, even in seemingly insignificant ways, it can lead to a host of negative psychological and physical side effects. That includes everything from lower scores on intelligence tests to a weakened immune system and increased aggression, explains Richard Schwartz, co-author (with Jacqueline Olds) of a new book on the topic, "The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century." "It's a trigger for so much," he says. "The whole experience of being left out is one of the basic driving forces of human experience."

Surprisingly, it doesn't take much of a rejection for those negative effects to start showing up. In one study, psychologists Roy Baumeister at Florida State University and Jean Twenge at San Diego State University gave a group of college students 15 minutes to socialize. Afterward, participants were asked, individually, who else they would like to work with on a future project. Those answers were never used; participants were instead randomly assigned to be "accepted" or "rejected" by the group. The accepted participants were told that they're the most desirable of the group, where the rejected participants are informed that, unfortunately, the group just isn't that into them. The "rejected" participants knew, at least rationally, that this didn't really matter; it was a 15-minute experiment in a laboratory that had no bearing on their future. But those who were rejected by their peers were significantly more aggressive toward an innocent target in follow-up exercises.

The socially excluded students also lost a fair amount of self-restraint after being rejected. In a follow-up experiment, participants were given the news of their rejection with a big plate of chocolate-chip cookies on the table. And if you've ever been home alone with a broken heart and a pint of mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, you can probably guess how that ended. The most memorable participant, says Twenge, was a young man who was assigned to the "rejected" category. "He kept saying, 'I'm eating all these cookies and don't know why'," she says. "The 'why' is that social rejection. It causes you to lose self-control."

Twenge's other research has found that rejected individuals also become less social, are more likely to interpret neutral words and behaviors as signs of rejection and score lower on intelligence tests—all from a simple 15-minute activity. And this pain was felt whether the rejection came from someone we want to like us, or someone we couldn't care less about. "There really aren't any limits," says Twenge. "Of course it hurts more when someone we care about rejects us, but it even hurts when people that we hate reject us."

For a while, researchers had two theories about how one rejection would impact future social interactions. Either it would make individuals more social and friendly, since they want to find a place to belong, or less social to prevent another hurtful rejection. Research over the past decade has sided with the later hypothesis: socially rejected individuals become more aggressive and less likely to exhibit prosocial behavior. Twenge describes it as an "interesting little paradox" because the more we get hurt by rejection, the more we push away connections. "It's possible that in some cases its self-protective," says Twenge. "Even though we know it's illogical, that it makes more sense to be nicer, that's not what happens. The immediate reaction is to withdraw."

That angst seems to be amplified if we have the perception that we're the only one who's left out or who's been hurt; that, in other words, everyone else is either well-liked or too independent to have rejection bother them. And, according to Schwartz, Americans are particularly reluctant to admit that we're feeling rejected. We're often told we should be able to brush off rejection without a thought. And that if we can't, we're weak and whiny. From John Wayne's heroic lone cowboy to the single and fabulous Carrie Bradshaw, Americans respect characters who can be perfectly content going it alone. Independence is also a status symbol: to own a car or house, for example, rather than ride the bus or rent an apartment, is a sign of financial success.

But the experts don't recommend pretending everything is OK. Rather, Schwartz and Olds say accepting loneliness as a condition that everyone experiences from time to time and taking active steps to combat it can help people cope better with the blow of rejection and the pain of loneliness. One tactic to fight feeling left out can be to make an invitation instead of waiting for one to arrive. "People feel so embarrassed to take social risks," says Olds. "It never occurs to them that almost everyone feels the same way. But chances are, they do."

Some of Twenge's recent studies looked at other factors that can mitigate the anti-social, aggressive reactions that usually follow social rejection. A friendly encounter after a social rejection—as small as thanking people and giving them a piece of candy for their participation helped quell some of the aggression. And, she found that when participants were socially rejected, but then wrote about a loved one for two minutes they no longer were aggressive. One thing that didn't work: watching a happy movie. Something to think about before you spend Saturday night with a chick flick and a pint of Ben & Jerry's.