As far as the brain is concerned, a broken heart
may not be so different from a broken arm.
BY KIRSTEN WEIR
Anyone who lived through high school gym class knows the anxiety of being picked last for the dodgeball team. The same hurt feelings bubble up when you are xcluded from lunch with co-workers, fail to land the job you interviewed for or are dumped by a romantic partner. Rejection feels lousy. Yet for many years, few psychologists tuned into the importance of rejection. “It’s like the whole field missed this centrally important part of human life,” says Mark Leary, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. That’s changed over the last decade and a half, as a growing number of researchers have turned their eyes toward this uncomfortable fact of life. “People have realized just how much our concern with social acceptance spreads its fingers into
almost everything we do,” he says.
rejection (Aggressive Behavior, 2003).
Clearly, there are good reasons to better understand the
effects of being excluded. “Humans have a fundamental need to
belong. Just as we have needs for food and water, we also have
needs for positive and lasting relationships,” says C. Nathan
De Wall, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky.
“This need is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history and has
all sorts of consequences for modern psychological processes.”
Pain in the brain
As clever as human beings are, we rely on social groups for
survival. We evolved to live in cooperative societies, and for
most of human history we depended on those groups for our
lives. Like hunger or thirst, our need for acceptance emerged
as a mechanism for survival. “A solitary human being could
not have survived during the six million years of human
evolution while we were living out there on the African
savannah,” Leary says.
With today’s modern conveniences, a person can physically
survive a solitary existence. But that existence is probably not
a happy one. Thanks to millions of years of natural selection,
being rejected is still painful. That’s not just a metaphor. Naomi
Eisenberger, PhD, at the University of California, Los Angeles,
Kipling Williams, PhD, at Purdue University, and colleagues