The Injuries of Social Rejection

This article was adapted from “Rust Revisited: An Update on Lesbians’ Opinions and the Implications for Bisexual Women” by Wesh, 2014.

Social rejection has several negative implications across the human lifespan, including aggression (Leary, Twenge & Quinlivan, 2006), distress (Wirth & Williams, 2009), maladaptive social behaviors (Nesdale & Lambert, 2007), risk-taking behaviors (Nesdale & Lambert, 2008), and even physiological symptoms (Moor, Crone, & van der Molen, 2010).  There is also discussion within the research community about the possibilities for short- and long-term self-esteem implications (Nesdale & Lambert, 2007, 2008; Wilcox & Mitchell, 1977).

Many studies have looked at the effects of experimentally controlled, single-incident rejection.  Wilcox and Mitchell (1977) sought “to synthesize the interactionist self-concept theories of Sullivan, Allport, Maslow, Rogers, and others with group dynamics theories of Rogers, Yalom, Lundgren, and Miller” (p. 170) by randomly assigning undergraduates to rejection and acceptance scenarios.  They found that the rejected group showed statistically significant stress reactions, including a temporary self-esteem drop.  By measuring signature sizes before and after the interactions, Wilcox and Mitchell also opened the door to the possibility that rejection may even partially inhibit basic motor functioning.  The impact of feelings of rejection is so immediate and acute that Zuckerman, Miserandino, and Bernieri “found that elevator riders who were not given the usual glance-and-nod by another rider had significantly lower moods after exiting the elevator” (as cited in Williams, Bernieri, Faulkner, Gada-Jain, & Grahe, 2000, p. 23).

The effects of rejection go beyond hurt feelings.  “Neuroimaging evidence suggests that the immediate response to ostracism is painful, activating the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), the same brain region activated during exposure to physical pain” (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, as cited in Wirth & Williams, 2009, p. 112). Additionally, changes in heart rate apparently occur when someone experiences unexpected rejection (Moor et al., 2010).  Moor et al.’s (2010) team found that the heartbeat actually slowed when individuals experienced unexpected social rejection, significantly more so than when they expected it, or upon learning they were wrong about something on a cognitive level.  Heart rates following social rejection also took longer to return to their established baseline—in a sense, one’s heart literally drops in response to surprise rejection.

Even in scenarios where rejection was fully expected, rejection and ostracism can directly result in disengagement, impaired productivity, frustration, distrust, and self-doubt (Williams et al., 2000).  Williams et al.’s (2000) controlled ostracism scenario only ran for 1 week, but the magnitude of the responses led them to theorize that longer-term exposure to such rejection could lead to “the individual’s internalization and resignation to alienation, rejection, depression, helplessness, and worthlessness” (p. 26).  In the short time the study ran, participants began to attribute all actions by their rejecters as deliberate and negative, indicating that prolonged or chronic rejection could lead to hypervigilance and related mental health complications that could develop in the rejected individual.

Awareness of, and negative reactions to, rejection appear in adolescents and children as young as 5 years of age (Nesdale & Lambert, 2007, 2008).  Through role-play and conjecture-based scenarios involving both one-on-one and group experiences, Nesdale and Lambert (2007, 2008) explored the reactions that 8- through 10-year-old children had to rejection by their (imagined) peers.  Although no significant self-esteem effect was revealed, the children who experienced rejection, albeit imagined, showed more negative affect, increased anxiety, increased maladaptive social behaviors (arguing, interrupting, disrespect, rule-breaking, etc.), and increased risk-taking behavior (greater in 10-year-olds than 8-year-olds).  These results were consistent in both male and female children.  In Nesdale and Lambert’s (2008) risk-taking study, the children were rejected on “personal grounds” (p. 31), as opposed to the arbitrary rejection in the 2007 study’s scenario.  To avoid undue stress, the children’s rejection was based on a personal but relatively innocuous reason.  Nesdale and Lambert (2008) hypothesized that children would be more anxious if their rejection was based upon “a personal characteristic about which the child was particularly sensitive” (p. 31). 

Young adults who experienced rejection in adolescence reported it as not only a traumatic event but in most cases, their most significant trauma in youth (Lev-Wiesel, Nuttman-Shwartz, & Sternberg, 2006).  Individuals tend to remember childhood rejection well into adulthood (Lev-Wiesel et al., 2006), and often feel its sting years after the actual experience has ceased.  Through participant self-report, Lev-Wiesel, Nuttman-Shwartz, and Sternberg (2006) found that the experience of peer rejection directly correlated with increased levels of posttraumatic stress disorder and depression in young adults. 

In light of the research on the short- and long-term impacts of even small episodes of social rejection, parents and clinicians need to be vigilant in their awareness. With the ever-growing realm of social media, and the subsequent myriad of new methods children and adolescents are using to exclude and segregate their peers, it is important for kids and teens to feel that they have a strong communal base to rely upon. This base can include an involved and active family unit, religious communities, sports teams, or any number of other support networks.  The presence of an alternate support system may not fully counter the pain of rejection, but at the very least, it may serve to dissuade teens from self-isolating or succumbing to the risk-taking or socially inappropriate behaviors that rejection may prime.   


Madeline E. Brener, PsyD

Freelance Field Researcher for Pearson
Former Adjunct Professor of Psychology, Campbell University at Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville, NC
Doctoral Degree in Clinical Psychology from Argosy University, San Francisco Bay Area, CA
Completed pre-doctoral internships at Home Start, Inc. and The San Diego LGBT Center, San Diego, CA