The Science Behind Rejection

Rejection, though a painful process physically and neurologically, is an important experience for students to learn and grow from.

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By Karina Huang

Imagine you are a high school senior in the middle of spring scrolling through your e-mails. Suddenly, you see a message pop up with an e-mail from your dream college. All you have to do is open the e-mail, but you know that seeing any sentence along the lines of “I am sorry to inform you…” would devastate you. At this moment—a moment packed with feelings of anticipation and anxiety—many high school seniors seem to fear one thing: rejection. 

Rejection is the exclusion from a social relationship or activity, and it is a normal aspect of everyone’s life. Rejection is often separated into three categories: relationship, professional, and social. Relationship rejection, though typically associated with romantic relationships, can vary from interactions with strangers to a long-term partner. For instance, an individual may feel rejected when friends in their friend group take a photo amongst themselves and thus exclude the individual. Professional relationships are mostly related to job and college rejections. Finally, social rejection often involves an individual’s exclusion from a group activity such as an event or party. 

People dealing with social exclusion often report that they feel hurt, especially when being excluded in professional settings. For instance, journalist Jules Dixon wrote about an instance when she went up to a group of four people to introduce herself until one of the four members of the group verbally expressed their desire to find a table of four, thus excluding Dixon. This, as she writes, made her feel hurt and uncomfortable. These feelings are because rejection threatens someone’s sense of belonging and makes them question their self-worth.

In more severe cases, rejection can cause the brain to create mental filters as shortcuts to reduce the task of processing lots of hurtful information at once. This leads to oversimplification of complex thoughts, which is typically associated with cognitive distortion—an internal bias that increases the misery an individual experiences, causing them to view situations inaccurately. For instance, if someone is rejected from a job position, with cognitive distortion, they may believe that they are not qualified for any job rather than believing that they were simply not fit for the particular job. 

Scientists have also found that the brain perceives social rejection as a source of pain. For instance, University of California, Los Angeles researcher Naomi Eisenberger and Purdue University researcher Kipling Williams studied rejection using an fMRI scanner, a scanner that measures activity in the visual cortex—the back of the head activated by stimulus—by detecting changes occurring in the blood flow within the brain. The researchers used the Cyberball experiment, an online experimental paradigm where around three volunteers toss and receive a virtual ball amongst each other until two players only toss the ball between themselves, ultimately excluding the third player. When analyzing the results of the experiment, Eisenberger and Williams found that compared to the two players who tossed the ball amongst themselves, the rejected individual showed greater activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula. 

The dACC and anterior insula are neural regions typically associated with the body’s reaction to physical stimuli. When people feel pain, nerves called nociceptors detect tissue damage and use the dACC and anterior insula to process the sensory information to evaluate the significance of the stimuli and the body’s perception of the pain. Hence, with increased activity in the dACC and anterior insula, they concluded that rejection is perceived as a physical pain to the brain. 

Additionally, Einsenberger and Williams further concluded that individuals with a greater amount of self-reported social distress had increased amounts of dACC activity and vice versa. Individuals who struggled with anxiety and attachment issues also showed increased activity in the dACC. Using blood oxygen level-dependent signal changes—the percentage signal change between the blood oxygenation levels in response to neural activity—researchers found that those who experience less social distress had a signal change of around -0.06 percent while those with higher levels of social distress had a signal change of up to 0.12 percent. 

With this new discovery, Eisenberger and Williams further researched the effects of using treatments typically associated with physical pain to mitigate the negative effects of rejection and social exclusion. For instance, in one experiment, some volunteers were given acetaminophen, commonly known as Tylenol—a recommended medication for fever and aches. Other volunteers were given a placebo pill—a harmless pill that appears to have medicinal effects but is designed to have no effect. After taking the pill daily for three weeks, those who took Tylenol reported fewer episodes of hurt feelings compared to the group who took the placebo. Interestingly enough, an fMRI study showed that those who took acetaminophen had less activity in their dACC and anterior insula. This data showed that there is a similarity between physical pain and social pain, which further suggests that treatments for physical pain, such as the tested acetaminophen, could help relieve the mental pain from rejection. However, it is critical that more research is done before doctors prescribe mass amounts of medication for individuals dealing with rejection. 

As a whole, psychologists and scientists recognize the impacts of rejection on the brain. Rejection is a universally difficult experience, whether it be regarding relationships, social situations, or professional circumstances. Therapists recommend that individuals, especially teenagers, take time to process their emotions, practice methods of self-care, and talk with trusted adults to relieve the effects of rejection.