Ouch: Understanding the Pain of Social Rejection

The feeling of social rejection is familiar to everyone. It hurts when someone we want attention or approval from ignores or dismisses us. And even though we can pretty much universally agree that it’s a bad feeling, some instances of social rejection tend to hurt more than others. Imagine your crush turns you down. In one case, you hear that their family member just passed away, and that they keep to themself lately. In another case, you hear that they just don’t like you that much. In both cases you were rejected – but one of these cases really stings, and we all know which one it is.

So what makes our feelings of social rejection vary so much between these two cases? What process does our brain use to figure out which forms of rejection are really worth hurting over, and which forms of rejection are not so bad? To answer this question, it would help to first understand: why does rejection hurt so badly in the first place? What is our brain trying to tell us when it rings the social pain alarm?

Interestingly, a body of research suggests that at the level of the brain, social pain may hurt us in a similar way to physical pain (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2005). To provide some background, one of the best tools for getting fined-grained information about which areas of the brain are active during certain tasks is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This tool indirectly measures changes in blood flow in the brain while participants perform certain tasks. But, to do so, participants are required to lay down alone in a cold, loud, donut-like tube when performing these tasks. This is an important limitation to consider when thinking about how to use fMRI to study social phenomena: how can you study the influence of other people when no one else is around?

Thankfully, researchers have come up with a lot of creative ways to deal with this limitation, allowing us to study a range of social phenomena using fMRI. In the case of social rejection, a popular task designed to elicit feelings of rejection without the immediate presence of other people is the “Cyberball” task. Cyberball is a computer game designed to elicit feelings of social rejection without the immediate presence of other people. During this game, three digital avatars toss a ball back and forth. The participant lying in the scanner can view the game on a screen, and controls one of these avatars with a handheld device. Their task is simply to play the game with the other two players. Unbeknownst to the participant, however, there are no other players: the other avatars in the game are programmed to systematically include or exclude the participant from the game. So, while the participant starts out being included in the game (i.e. receiving the ball from the other players), they are eventually left out when the other avatars stop passing them the ball.

This task has been used to study social rejection hundreds of times now (Vijayakumar, Cheng, & Pfeifer, 2017), with a consistent result. Even though no one is physically around them, participants who play this game report feeling distressed by the rejection. When we peak under the hood to examine how the brain is responding during this task, it turns out that a region of the brain that has previously been associated with the experience of physical pain, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, seems to also be engaged during the experience of social pain (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2005). While it’s thought that different sub-areas of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to social versus physical pain, and there is ongoing debate about the extent to which these areas are selective for pain (e.g. Wager et al., 2016), the mechanism underlying social and physical pain may actually be similar at a neural level.

Given this similarity, amongst others, researchers have theorized that the experience of social pain may have evolutionarily piggybacked on the physical pain system (Macdonald & Leary, 2005). The physical pain system is important for survival in so far as pain warns us that we need to change how we are interacting with our environments to avoid further consequences. For example, you touch a hot stove, your brain signals pain, and you remove your hand from the heat to avoid a severe burn. This process may unfold similarly in the case of social pain. You are socially rejected, your brain signals pain, and you modify your behavior to avoid future rejection. Broken bonds can be as dangerous as broken bones, and so our brains use pain to teach us to avoid them.

And what’s so bad about broken bonds? Well, social exclusion can have consequences. For example, if people don’t want to affiliate with you, you may have lower access to housing and employment, which are important for survival. Additionally, social support in itself is so important for survival that it has been demonstrated to have protective effects against morbidity and mortality outcomes (Kawachi & Berkman, 2001). Given the overall importance of social relationships for humans, it makes sense that our brains could have evolved a mechanism to help us navigate the social world and avoid potentially deleterious outcomes.

Now that we understand more about why we may feel social pain, let’s try to understand why not all rejection is equally painful. While limited research has explored this topic explicitly, the relevant work suggests that feeling rejected may have something to do with how we understand another person’s thoughts and feelings – a process referred to as “mentalizing.” This process is associated with activation in specific brain regions, including dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction, and involves some complex cognitive computing (Frith & Frith, 2006). However, we do this all the time: when we wonder why someone does something, we naturally think about their thoughts and feelings to try to understand their behavior.

In the case of social rejection, the pain of rejection seems to rely at least to some extent on our understanding of the rejecter’s thoughts and feelings. When someone rejects us, we tend to wonder: why? In asking this question, it tends to hurt less when the answer is that the rejecter is tired, generally mean, or otherwise distracted. However, it tends to hurt more when the answer is that they just don’t like us – when we think, “it’s something about me.”

Why does the latter case seem to hurt more? While there is no explicit research on this topic, there is an intuitive answer. If we are doing something that actually causes another person to dislike us – if we act in a way that is inconsiderate, selfish, or offensive – then this is something about our actions that we probably want to recognize and possibly change. In cases where we are rejected because of some factors external to us, there is not as strong of a reason to ring the alarm and worry about what we can do differently. But when the rejection seems to have something to do with how the rejecter perceives us, there may be something we can do to manage the situation and avoid future rejection. While understanding our own rejection may bring us to the undesirable conclusion that there is something about us that puts others off, this understanding can allow us to learn and grow, promoting our ability to build and maintain social bonds over time.

Much like broken bones, broken bonds are not always avoidable. But like physical pain, social pain may be designed to help us learn to protect ourselves by changing how we interact with the world around us. Ultimately, while rejection hurts, we’re better off experiencing this pain than going through life without learning to repair and maintain the social relationships we rely on.  

References

Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2005). Why It Hurts to Be Left Out The Neurocognitive Overlap Between Physical and Social Pain. In The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying (p. 130).

Frith, C. D., & Frith, U. (2006). Minireview The Neural Basis of Mentalizing. Neuron, 50, 531–534.

Kawachi, I., & Berkman, L. F. (2001). Social ties and mental health. Journal of Urban health78(3), 458-467.

MacDonald, G., & Leary, M. R. (2005). Why does social exclusion hurt? The relationship between social and physical pain. Psychological Bulletin.

Rochat, P. (2003). Five levels of self-awareness as they unfold early in life. In Consciousness and Cognition (Vol. 12, pp. 717–731).  

Vijayakumar, N., Cheng, T. W., & Pfeifer, J. H. (2017). Neural correlates of social exclusion across ages: A coordinate-based meta-analysis of functional MRI studies. NeuroImage, 153, 359–368.  

Wager, T. D., Atlas, L. Y., Botvinick, M. M., Chang, L. J., Coghill, R. C., Davis, K. D., ... & Yarkoni, T. (2016). Pain in the ACC?. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences113(18), E2474-E2475.