Rejection Sensitivity in Social Psychology
Everyone desires acceptance and dislikes rejection from people who are important to them. Some people, however, are more concerned with rejection, a quality known as rejection sensitivity. Thus, rejection sensitivity refers to a trait that makes some people different from others. Rejection-sensitive people (unlike, or more than, other people) come into new situations feeling anxious and expecting rejection. For example, when Kate attends a party where she knows only the host, she gets sweaty palms (i.e., indicating high anxiety) and doesn’t think anyone will want to talk with her (i.e., rejection expectancy). Rejection-sensitive individuals also perceive rejection in situations more often than others do, tending to read rejection into others’ actions and words. Luke is a reserve player on the school’s basketball team. Sometimes when his teammates only pass him the ball a few times in a game, he believes they don’t like him. Rejection sensitivity also shows itself in how a person reacts to a rejection. Rejection-sensitive people often react to rejection with strong hostility and aggression or severe anxiety and withdrawal. Anna gave her professor low ratings on the teacher evaluation form after she found out she didn’t do well on the final. Jake didn’t leave the house all summer after his girlfriend broke up with him. The rejection sensitivity model was developed to explain all of these elements—expectation of rejection, perception of rejection, reaction to rejection.
Rejection Sensitivity Context and Background
Psychology has long emphasized the importance of a relationship of trust between children and their primary caregivers. One of the most influential models of the link between early relationship experiences and later interpersonal functioning is John Bowlby’s attachment theory. This theory suggests that early experiences cause children to create mental representations (i.e., ideas or images of what close relationships are like) that influence subsequent social interactions. If they can trust their caregiver to meet their needs, they form secure representations. If their needs are met with rejection through the form of unavailability or nonloving responses, then they will become insecure and unsure in their relationships. Other researchers have proposed that these early relationship representations carry over into adulthood, particularly in intimate relationships. Early experiences of rejection can lead to rejection sensitivity as an adult.
Research on rejection sensitivity illuminates how insecure attachment may play out in everyday life. Anticipating and fearing rejection influence people’s thoughts and feelings, which in turn influence their behavior in social situations.
In general, rejection sensitivity is correlated with low self-esteem. However, rejection sensitivity involves insecurity about relationships with others more than about the doubt about one’s worth as an individual.
Rejection Sensitivity Evidence and Implications
Research has documented support for the various links of the rejection sensitivity model. Studies of childhood experiences have established that anxious expectations of rejection are associated with exposure to family violence, emotional neglect, harsh discipline, and conditional love by parents. Experiments have shown that anxious expectations of rejection predict a readiness to perceive rejection in others’ behavior. Perceiving rejection predicts cognitive, emotional, and behavioral reactions that damage significant relationships and can trigger withdrawal or aggression.
These reactions of hostility and depression may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy (a prediction that becomes true through its influence on people’s thoughts and behavior). This is because rejection-sensitive people perceive rejection in ambiguous situations and overreact to it, making it more likely that their partners will actually reject them. Rejection sensitivity can also hinder people from forming close, meaningful relationships. When combined with other factors, rejection sensitivity may put people at risk for clinical syndromes such as depression, social anxiety, and borderline personality disorder.
Rejection sensitivity was originally conceptualized as a tendency to believe potential rejection was caused by personal characteristics. Further work has expanded rejection sensitivity research to address rejection based on group membership such as race or gender. If you believe you may be or are rejected because you are a member of a stigmatized minority group, this can affect how you interact with members of the majority group or social institutions such as schools or workplaces. One study showed that for African American students entering a predominantly White college, higher levels of race-based rejection sensitivity were associated with less racially diverse friendships, less trust that the school had their best interests in mind, more anxiety about seeking help from teachers, and lower grades by the end of the year. Similarly, recent evidence suggests that women who are sensitive to being rejected because of their sex may have more trouble coping well in environments that have traditionally been dominated by men, such as math or engineering.
Rejection Sensitivity Measure
The original Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire (RSQ) assesses anxious interpersonal rejection expectations using 18 scenarios relevant to a college student population. The measure asks participants to imagine themselves in various situations in which they need to ask something of a valued other, such as, “You ask someone you don’t know well out on a date.” They are then asked to answer the following questions:
How concerned or anxious would you be about how the other person would respond?
Very unconcerned 1 2 3 4 5 6 Very concerned
How do you think the other person would be likely to respond?
I would expect that the person would want to go out with me.
Very unlikely 1 2 3 4 5 6 Very likely
The expectation answer is reverse scored (subtracted from 7) so that higher numbers mean more expectation for rejection. Then for each scenario, the anxiety number and the expectation number are multiplied, and an average is taken across the 18 scenarios. This total RSQ score has a possible range of 1 to 36, with higher numbers indicating greater rejection sensitivity.
The original RSQ has been adapted for an adult population and for group-based rejection sensitivity in the form of the RS-Race questionnaire and the RS-Gender questionnaire. The RS measures can be found http://socialrelations.psych.columbia.edu/.
- Downey, G., & Feldman, S. (1996). Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1327-1343.
- Social Relations Laboratory. Columbia University Department of Psychology. Retrieved July 12, 2015, from http://socialrelations.psych.columbia.edu/.