Defined broadly, social rejection refers to one’s perceived reduction of social acceptance, group inclusion, or sense of belonging. Social psychologists study real, imagined, and implied rejection in a variety of forms and contexts. Explicit rejection, exclusion, and ostracism are different kinds of rejection than can occur within groups or dyadic relationships of a romantic or platonic nature. Rejection typically produces negative immediate effects and leads to either antisocial or prosocial behavior, depending on the context of subsequent interactions.
History of Rejection
Even though philosophers, writers, and laypeople have contemplated the nature of social rejection for centuries, social scientists had not formulated cohesive theories about social rejection and acceptance until relatively recently. In the 1950s, psychologists such as Stanley Schachter began examining the motivations that underlie social contact, and Abraham Maslow, in particular, argued that individuals seek relationships to fulfill a need to belong—belonging being a fundamental need secondary only to nourishment and safety needs. By the 1960s, psychologists began fleshing out attachment theories, which argued that parental rejection powerfully influences children’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Notwithstanding this early work on belonging needs and attachment, social psychological research examining the characteristics, antecedents, and consequences of rejection has only come of age in the last decade.
Complexities of Rejection
Contemporary social psychologists study rejection in an array of forms and contexts. Rejection may be active or passive and involve physical or psychological distancing or exclusion. For example, individuals may be actively rejected when others voice negative views of them or tell them that their presence is not wanted. In comparison, individuals may be passively rejected when others pay little attention to them or ignore them altogether (e.g., the silent treatment). Physical exclusion from a group elicits feelings of rejection in most circumstances (e.g., when an individual is purposefully left out), and psychological exclusion (e.g., when one’s opinions are discounted or ignored) is also experienced as a rejection.
Rejection may be derived from individuals or groups, and the nature of these relationships influences the severity of the rejection. Romantic partners, friends, acquaintances, strangers, and group members can all serve as a source of rejection. Although the causes and characteristics of these rejections are arguably different on average (e.g., a stranger’s insult has different connotations than that of a friend), the most powerful rejections are dispatched by individuals or groups that are important to a person. In other words, the more important a relationship is to a person, the more painful its weakening or dissolution will be.
Similarly, the further one falls in liking after a rejection, the more robust the consequences. In other words, the change in a person’s opinion of another has more impact than the absolute level of that opinion. When an individual’s positive initial opinion of another person dwindles to a negative opinion over time, this person will feel worse than had the individual always thought poorly of him or her. Likewise, even a drop in positive regard can feel like a rejection. A close friend who is suddenly treated like a casual acquaintance may feel rejected even though general liking remains. Consequently, initial liking needs to be taken into account when considering the impact of a rejection.
As discussed previously, social rejection (as well as social acceptance) is a multifaceted term that encompasses a number of behaviors and experiences that occur in a variety of contexts. To predict rejection outcomes with the most accuracy, a researcher would require knowledge of the source, the individual’s relationship with the source, the nature of the rejection, and so forth. Most researchers find this narrow vision too restrictive and instead choose to blend or mix these variants of rejection together in an effort to generate broad theories that speak to the nature of social rejection more generally. Most of this research has addressed the responses to and consequences of social rejection.
Responses to Rejection
Immediate reactions to rejection are typically negative. Rejected individuals report feeling worse about themselves in general. In addition to lowered self-esteem, people usually describe their feelings as hurt. Furthermore, people seem to experience social pain and distress after a rejection much like physical pain, according to recent neuroscientific evidence. Rejection also hinders individuals’ ability to rein in impulses and make difficult decisions. Given their impoverished decision-making abilities, rejected individuals tend to perform more self-defeating behaviors such as procrastinating and making risky, irrational choices than do accepted individuals. Moreover, rejection impairs individuals’ logic and reasoning abilities, and this results in poor performance on tasks that require complex intelligent thought.
The negative consequences of rejection are not confined to the individual who experienced the rejection.
In addition to hurting themselves, rejected individuals also perform antisocial behaviors that hurt others. After being rejected, individuals are especially likely to lash out against the rejecter and to aggress against innocent bystanders as well. Roy Baumeister, Jean Twenge, and colleagues have shown, for instance, that study participants who were told that no one wanted to work with them in a group were more willing to blast innocent others with loud, uncomfortable bursts of noise than were participants who were told that they were accepted into the group. These researchers also demonstrated that rejected individuals feel less empathy for others and are, consequently, less willing to cooperate with and help them. When given an opportunity to cooperate with an unknown partner, rejected individuals choose to cheat the partner instead.
Despite these negative initial reactions, rejection also elicits prosocial behaviors under some circumstances. Rejected individuals try to strengthen social bonds with others by working harder on group tasks, publicly agreeing with others’ opinions, and displaying positive, affiliative nonverbal behavior (e.g., smiling, making eye contact, mimicking others’ actions). To make subsequent social interactions smoother, rejected individuals pay more attention to subtle social cues like facial expressions and vocal tones than accepted individuals do. When rejected individuals are unable to form new social attachments or mend broken social bonds (e.g., when interaction partners are not available), they attempt to regain a sense of belonging by other means. In comparison with accepted individuals, those who are rejected reflect upon and affirm their own relationships to a greater extent and prefer tasks of a social nature (e.g., looking at photographs of loved ones) rather than those of a nonsocial nature (e.g., looking at a magazine). Among individuals with a strong need to belong, rejected individuals can find companionship with their pets and even atypical targets such as favorite television characters.
On the whole, research on rejection indicates that the consequences of rejection are mixed. Some studies find evidence of antisocial behavior following rejection whereas others find evidence of prosocial behavior. The literature currently suggests that rejected individuals will act in prosocial ways (e.g., being agreeable) when they foresee future interactions with a partner and in antisocial ways (e.g., being aggressive) if they expect little or no contact with a partner. An aim of ongoing and future research is to uncover the circumstances under which social rejection elicits more prosocial than antisocial effects and vice versa.
Long-Term Consequences of Rejection
Even though individuals can recover from a single rejection, the experience itself is unpleasant and detrimental in many ways. Individuals who experience rejections repeatedly, however, suffer even more serious consequences. Such individuals may internalize these rejections and behave in self-fulfilling ways that actually elicit subsequent rejection. In other words, perpetually rejected individuals will come to expect rejection and will push away potential friends and partners and choose to isolate themselves. Stuck in this vicious circle, these individuals’ feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and worthlessness will bring about poor mental and physical health outcomes.
- Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.
- Leary, M. R (2001). Interpersonal rejection. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Williams, K. D., Forgas, J. P., & von Hippel, W. (2005). The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying. New York: Psychology Press.