accepted. The payments did nothing to dampen the pain of
exclusion. “No matter how hard you push it, people are hurt by
ostracism,” he says.
Fortunately, most people recover almost immediately from
these brief episodes of rejection. If a stranger fails to look you
in the eye, or you’re left out of a game of Cyberball, you aren’t
likely to dwell on it for long. But other common rejections —
not being invited to a party, or being turned down for a second
date — can cause lingering emotions.
After the initial pain of rejection, Williams says, most people
move into an “appraisal stage,” in which they take stock and
formulate their next steps. “We think all forms of ostracism are
immediately painful,” he says. “What differs is how long it takes
to recover, and how one deals with the recovery.”
People often respond to rejection by seeking inclusion
elsewhere. “If your sense of belonging and self-esteem have
been thwarted, you’ll try to reconnect,” says Williams. Excluded
people actually become more sensitive to potential signs of
connection, and they tailor their behavior accordingly. “They
will pay more attention to social cues, be more likable, more
likely to conform to other people and more likely to comply
with other people’s requests,” he says.
Yet others may respond to rejection with anger and lashing
out. If someone’s primary concern is to reassert a sense of
control, he or she may become aggressive as a way to force
others to pay attention. Sadly, that can create a downward spiral.
When people act aggressively, they’re even less likely to gain
What causes some people to become friendlier in response
to rejection, while others get angry? According to De Wall, even
a glimmer of hope for acceptance can make all the difference. In
a pair of experiments, he and his colleagues found that students
who were accepted by no other participants in group activities
behaved more aggressively — feeding hot sauce to partners who
purportedly disliked spicy foods, and blasting partners with
uncomfortably loud white noise through headphones — than
students accepted by just one of the other participants (Social
Psychological and Personality Science, 2010).
Social pain relief
It may take time to heal from a bad break-up or being fired,
but most people eventually get over the pain and hurt feelings
of rejection. When people are chronically rejected or excluded,
however, the results may be severe. Depression, substance
abuse and suicide are not uncommon responses. “Long-term
ostracism seems to be very devastating,” Williams says. “People
finally give up.”
In that case, psychologists can help people talk through their
feelings of exclusion, De Wall says.
“A lot of times, these are things people don’t want to
talk about,” he says. And because rejected people may adopt
behaviors, such as aggression, that serve to further isolate them,
psychologists can also help people to act in ways that are more
likely to bring them social success.
The pain of non-chronic rejection may be easier to alleviate.
Despite what the fMRI scanner says, however, popping two
Tylenols probably isn’t the most effective way to deal with a
painful episode of rejection. Instead, researchers say, the rejected
should seek out healthy, positive connections with friends and
That recommendation squares with the neural evidence that
shows positive social interactions release opioids for a natural
mood boost, Eisenberger says. Other activities that produce
opioids naturally, such as exercise, might also help ease the sore
feelings that come with rejection.
Putting things into perspective also helps, Leary says.
True, rejection can sometimes be a clue that you behaved
badly and should change your ways. But frequently, we take
rejection more personally than we should. “Very often we
have that one rejection, maybe we didn’t get hired for this
job we really wanted, and it makes us feel just lousy about
our capabilities and ourselves in general,” Leary says. “I think
if people could stop overgeneralizing, it would take a lot of
the angst out of it.”
Next time you get passed over for a job or dumped by
a romantic partner, it may help to know that the sting of
rejection has a purpose. That knowledge may not take away the
pain, but at least you know there’s a reason for the heartache.
“Evolutionarily speaking, if you’re socially isolated you’re going
to die,” Williams says. “It’s important to be able to feel that
Kirsten Weir is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.
Studying ostracism in action
Video: Click here to watch a cyberball game
in action. Click here for a video of one
participant’s reaction to being ostracized
during the game.