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Social Acceptance and Rejection: The Sweet and the Bitter

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People have a fundamental need for positive and lasting relationships. In this article, we provide an overview of social psychological research on the topic of social acceptance and rejection. After defining these terms, we describe the need to belong and how it enabled early humans to fulfill their survival and reproductive goals. Next, we review research on the effects of social rejection on emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and biological responses. We also describe research on the neural correlates of social rejection. We offer a theoretical account to explain when and why social rejection produces desirable and undesirable outcomes. We then review evidence regarding how people cope with the pain of social rejection. We conclude by identifying factors associated with heightened and diminished responses to social rejection.
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Current Directions in Psychological
Science
20(4) 256 –260
© The Author(s) 2011
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DOI: 10.1177/0963721411417545
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Deep down even the most hardened criminal is starving
for the same thing that motivates the innocent baby:
Love and acceptance.
— Lily Fairchilde
Hardened criminals may seem worlds apart from innocent
babies. Yet, as the Fairchilde quote suggests, there is reason to
believe that most people share a similar craving for social
acceptance. Social acceptance is pleasant, rewarding, and, in
moderate amounts, associated with various indicators of well-
being. Over the past 15 years, there has been tremendous inter-
est within the social psychological literature on the flipside of
social acceptance—namely, social rejection. Social rejection
thwarts the fundamental need for positive and lasting relation-
ships, which strikes at the core of well-being. Thus, the human
need for social connection can be both a sweet blessing when
others accept us and a bitter curse when others reject us.
In this article, we provide an overview of social psycho-
logical research on the topic of social acceptance and rejec-
tion. The article is divided into five sections. First, we provide
conceptual and operational definitions of social acceptance
and social rejection. Second, we describe the need to belong
and how it enabled early humans to fulfill their survival and
reproductive goals. Third, we review research on the effects of
social rejection on emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and bio-
logical responses. We also review research on the neural cor-
relates of social rejection. Fourth, we review evidence on how
people cope with the pain of social exclusion. Fifth, we
identify factors associated with heightened and diminished
responses to social rejection.
What Are Social Acceptance
and Social Rejection?
Social acceptance means that other people signal that they
wish to include you in their groups and relationships (Leary,
2010). Social acceptance occurs on a continuum that ranges
from merely tolerating another person’s presence to actively
pursuing someone as a relationship partner. Social rejection
means that others have little desire to include you in their
groups and relationships (Leary, 2010). Social rejection also is
a complex construct, consisting of behaviors that can range
from ignoring another person’s presence to actively expelling
him or her from a group or existing relationship. People can
experience acceptance and rejection chronically or acutely.
People experience social acceptance and rejection in
numerous ways. Examples of acceptance include being chosen
for a desirable job or having a romantic partner say “yes” to a
marriage proposal. Examples of rejection include divorce or
being ignored by one’s coworkers. Psychologists have devised
several innovative manipulations of social acceptance and
Corresponding Author:
C. Nathan DeWall, 201 Kastle Hall, Department of Psychology, University of
Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506-0044
E-mail: nathan.dewall@uky.edu
Social Acceptance and Rejection:
The Sweet and the Bitter
C. Nathan DeWall
1
and Brad J. Bushman
2
1
University of Kentucky and
2
The Ohio State University and VU University, Amsterdam
Abstract
People have a fundamental need for positive and lasting relationships. In this article, we provide an overview of social psychological
research on the topic of social acceptance and rejection. After defining these terms, we describe the need to belong and
how it enabled early humans to fulfill their survival and reproductive goals. Next, we review research on the effects of social
rejection on emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and biological responses. We also describe research on the neural correlates of
social rejection. We offer a theoretical account to explain when and why social rejection produces desirable and undesirable
outcomes. We then review evidence regarding how people cope with the pain of social rejection. We conclude by identifying
factors associated with heightened and diminished responses to social rejection.
Keywords
social rejection, social exclusion, social acceptance, need to belong
Social Acceptance and Rejection 257
rejection, including leading participants to believe that every-
one or no one chose them to be in their group (Maner, DeWall,
Baumeister, & Schaller, 2007) or having confederates (real
or virtual) include or exclude them in a ball-tossing game
(Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000).
Why Is Social Acceptance Sweet and
Social Rejection Bitter?
The need to belong is defined as the desire to form and maintain
close, lasting relationships with some other individuals
(Baumeister & Leary, 1995). The need to belong has two parts.
First, people want some kind of positive regular social contact.
Second, people want the stable framework of some ongoing
relationship in which the the individuals share a mutual concern
for each other. Having either of these without the other provides
only partial satisfaction of the need to belong.
Being motivated to have positive and lasting relationships
conferred a tremendous advantage among our evolutionary
ancestors. With no fangs, fur, or claws, and with long, vulner-
able childhoods, humans are ill-suited to fulfill their survival
and reproductive needs living in isolation. Given these vulner-
abilities, early humans survived harsh environments by
depending on small groups of other individuals to meet many
of their survival and reproductive needs. The benefits of
acceptance and group living extend beyond protection from
predators and providing mates to spread one’s genes to future
generations. Cooperative group living enabled early humans
to share and receive resources from each other, thereby mak-
ing it unnecessary for individuals to carry the entire burden of
their well-being on their own shoulders.
Therefore, social rejection is experienced as “bitter” in
order to motivate individuals to avoid a negative state in which
they do not receive the benefits of inclusion, which ultimately
decreases their survival rate. Because our ancestors evolved in
small groups, social rejection likely signified a death sentence.
Even among early civilizations, such as that of the Greeks,
exile and death were treated as equivalent punishments. In
contrast, social acceptance is experienced as “sweet” in order
to reinforce a positive state in which people enjoy the rewards
associated with inclusion.
How Do People Respond to
Social Rejection?
Because social rejection thwarts a core human need, it is not
surprising that it influences a variety of outcomes—emotional,
cognitive, behavioral, biological, and neural. In terms of emo-
tional responses, social rejection tends to increase various
types of negative emotion. Hurt feelings are the core emo-
tional marker of social rejection, but rejection also increases
anxiety, anger, sadness, depression, and jealousy (Leary,
2010). Social rejection also diminishes state self-esteem,
defined as temporary feelings of self-worth (Williams et al.,
2000).
Social rejection influences cognitive processes in two main
ways. First, it reduces performance on challenging intellectual
tasks, resulting in subpar performance (e.g., Baumeister,
Twenge, & Nuss, 2002). Second, social rejection causes peo-
ple to become cognitively attuned to potential sources of social
acceptance and to potential threats, presumably as a means of
gaining acceptance from others (e.g., Williams et al., 2000).
Rejected people can also be hypersensitive to signs of threat.
For example, rejected people perceive hostility when con-
fronted with ambiguously aggressive actions of a stranger who
does not represent a source of affiliation (DeWall, Twenge,
Gitter, & Baumeister, 2009).
Social rejection affects a broad assortment of behaviors.
Although it undermines the chances of gaining acceptance,
social rejection often increases aggression. In the laboratory,
rejected people, compared to nonrejected people, blast strang-
ers with intense and prolonged white noise, dole out large
amounts of hot sauce to people who hate spicy food, and give
destructive evaluations of potential job candidates (e.g.,
Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, & Stucke, 2001). Outside of the
laboratory, social rejection is implicated in acts of mass vio-
lence. For example, an analysis of 15 school shooters found
that social rejection was present in all but 2 of the cases (Leary,
Kowalski, Smith, & Phillips, 2003). Some recent evidence
demonstrates that a hostile cognitive bias mediates the rela-
tionship between threats of social rejection and aggression
(DeWall et al., 2009).
Crucially, offering socially rejected people a small taste
of acceptance, even from one stranger, is enough to reduce
their aggression (DeWall, Twenge, Bushman, Im, & Williams,
2010). Similar effects emerge with prosocial behavior. Socially
rejected people generally behave selfishly, but they engage in
prosocial behavior when doing so can earn them acceptance
(Maner et al., 2007). Thus, antisocial and prosocial responses
to social rejection hinge partly on the prospect of social
acceptance.
Social rejection also undermines self-regulation—better
known as impulse control. When given the opportunity, socially
rejected people will eat over twice as many good-tasting but
unhealthy cookies as nonrejected people will, but they will con-
sume only one third as much of a bad-tasting but healthy bever-
age (Baumeister, DeWall, Ciarocco, & Twenge, 2005). When
socially rejected people receive an incentive for effective self-
regulation, such as money, they regain their motivation and per-
form well. Framing self-regulation performance as a means
of gaining future acceptance is also effective in undoing the
self-regulation deficits following social rejection (DeWall,
Baumeister, & Vohs, 2008). These findings again highlight the
importance of promises of acceptance in motivating socially
rejected people to engage in desirable behavior.
Social rejection influences a variety of biological responses.
When people experience social rejection, their hearts literally
slow down (Gunther Moor, Crone, & van der Molen, 2010)
and they experience motivationally tuned changes in proges-
terone, a hormone associated with social-affiliative motivation
258 DeWall, Bushman
(Maner, Miller, Schmidt, & Eckel, 2010). Social rejection and
other forms of social-evaluative threat, defined as a context in
which a person can be judged negatively by others, increases the
release of the stress hormone cortisol (Dickerson & Kemeny,
2004) and stimulates production of proinflammatory cytokines
(Dickerson, Gable, Irwin, Aziz, & Kemeny, 2009). In terms of
neural correlates, social rejection increases activation in brain
regions (e.g., dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula)
that are associated with the affective component of physical
pain (i.e., the “unpleasantness” aspect of pain, as opposed to the
sensory component on knowing that one is experiencing pain;
Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003).
Coping With Social Rejection
If social rejection produces such varied (and often negative)
outcomes, it is incumbent upon psychological scientists to
identify how people can cope with the pain it causes. To be
sure, many of the previously mentioned responses to social
rejection may represent coping responses. Rejected people
may behave aggressively, for example, because they believe
doing so may make them feel better. In addition, striving to
identify and form bonds with new friends represents another
way that people cope with the pain of rejection.
Recent research suggests that social rejection sets in motion
an automatic emotion regulation process in which positive
emotions become highly accessible (DeWall et al., in press).
Socially rejected participants, compared to nonrejected par-
ticipants, recalled more positive childhood memories, com-
pleted more word stems with positive emotion words, and
made biased judgments to include more positive emotion in
their perception of word similarity. These findings offer initial
evidence that social rejection produces strong positive emo-
tional responses at an implicit level, possibly as a means of
warding off later distress.
People also cope with social rejection by turning to religion
(Aydin, Fischer, & Frey, 2010). Compared to nonrejected peo-
ple, socially rejected people express greater religious affilia-
tion and greater intentions to engage in religious activities.
Priming rejected people with religious thoughts reduces their
aggression. Crucially, coping with social rejection through the
use of religion was found among both Christians and Muslims.
Apparently the use of religion as a means of coping with social
rejection does not depend on the teachings of a particular
religion.
Because there is some shared overlap in neural regions
associated with physical pain and social rejection, numbing
people to physical pain may also diminish the pain of social
rejection. In a test of this hypothesis, participants took a daily
dose of acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) or a
placebo and reported their daily hurt feelings (DeWall, Mac-
Donald, et al., 2010). As predicted, the pain reliever reduced
daily hurt feelings compared to the placebo. A follow-up study
showed that compared to placebo, acetaminophen reduced
neural activation to a social rejection manipulation in the
dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and anterior insula
(see Fig. 1). Thus, an over-the-counter analgesic commonly
used to treat physical pain was effective in reducing emotional
responses and neural correlates of social rejection.
Individual Factors Associated With
Heightened and Diminished Responses to
Social Rejection
Social rejection means different things to different people.
Although social rejection poses a basic threat to most people,
enduring patterns of inner experience and behavior are
associated with heightened or diminished responses. For
example, behavioral and emotional responses to social rejec-
tion are particularly pronounced among people high in rejec-
tion sensitivity (Ayduk, Gyurak, & Luerssen, 2008) and high
in anxious attachment (Vorauer, Cameron, Holmes, & Pearce,
2003). Neural correlates of rejection and social disapproval
are strongest among people high in rejection sensitivity
(Burklund, Eisenberger, & Lieberman, 2007) and low in self-
esteem (Onoda et al., 2010).
Although rejection-sensitive people behave quite aggres-
sively when there is no possibility of gaining acceptance, they
can also show hormonal and behavioral responses reflecting a
strong desire for affiliation. After experiencing social rejec-
tion, highly rejection-sensitive people experience increases in
their progesterone levels and go out of their way to make a
good impression on potential affiliates (e.g., Maner et al.,
2010). In contrast, socially anxious people respond to social
rejection with hormonal and behavioral responses indicative
of a weak desire for affiliation (Maner et al., 2007, 2010).
To our knowledge, only one study thus far has identified an
individual risk factor associated with relative immunity to
social rejection (Wirth, Lynam, & Williams, 2010). In that
study, socially rejected participants who scored highly on a
configuration of traits descriptive of Cluster A personality dis-
orders (paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal) experienced less
reductions in their feelings of belonging, self-esteem, control,
meaningful existence, and positive affect relative to partici-
pants who scored low on these traits. Future work may explore
other individual factors associated with relative immunity to
social rejection.
Conclusion
Fifteen years ago, there was almost no social psychological
research investigating how social acceptance and rejection
affect people. As shown in this review, an explosion of theo-
rizing and research has filled this void. This work has clarified
how social rejection influences a broad range of outcomes—
emotional, cognitive, behavioral, biological, and neural. It has
shed light on how desirable and undesirable responses to
social rejection often hinge on the prospect of acceptance or
some other enticing benefit. It has examined ways that people
Social Acceptance and Rejection 259
cope with social rejection and how medications designed to
diminish physical pain can also diminish the pain of rejection.
And it has identified individual factors that predispose people
to react harshly or weakly to social rejection.
As this research literature enters its second generation, it is
critical for researchers to consider the impact of social accep-
tance and rejection within the context of ongoing relation-
ships. Thus far, researchers have focused almost entirely on
social acceptance and rejection experienced from strangers,
leaving open the question of whether these results relate to
existing relationships. Examining the time course of responses
to social acceptance and rejection is also significant, as most
research thus far offers a snapshot of immediate responses and
does not investigate how responses strengthen or decay over
time. Thus, the social acceptance and rejection literature offers
fertile ground for psychological scientists to unlock the mys-
teries underlying the need to belong—and how satisfying or
thwarting this need gives insight into human nature.
Recommended Reading
Baumeister, R.F., & Leary, M.R. (1995). (See References). A key
theoretical piece on how people have a fundamental need to
belong.
DeWall, C.N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G.D., Masten, C., Baumeister,
R.F., Powell, C., et al. (2010). (See References). Provides the first
evidence that acetaminophen, a physical pain killer, can reduce the
pain of social rejection.
Leary, M.R. (2010). (See References). A comprehensive review for
readers wishing to expand their knowledge on the field of social
acceptance and rejection.
Williams, K.D., Cheung, C.K.T., & Choi, W. (2000). (See Refer-
ences). Introduction and validation of the most widely used
manipulation of social rejection: Cyberball.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect
to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
0.6
0.4
0.2
0
–0.2
–0.4
–0.6
Activity During
Exclusion vs. Inclusion
Activity During
Exclusion vs. Inclusion
Acetaminophen Acetaminophen
Placebo Placebo
2.0
1.6
1.2
0.8
0.4
0
–0.4
–0.8
Anterior Insula (45, 21, –9)dACC (9, 27, 21)
t = 0
1
2
3
4
5
ab
Fig. 1. Activation in regions associated with the pain of social rejection—the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC; a) and anterior
insula (b)—in response to social exclusion (vs. inclusion) in those receiving acetaminophen and those receiving a placebo. The illustration
above each graph shows change in intensity of neural activity that was greater for participants who took placebo than for those who took
acetaminophen (see the color bar); results are averaged across both conditions. The circled regions are those for which results are given
in the bar graphs. Source: DeWall, C.N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G.D., Masten, C., Baumeister, R.F., Powell, C., et al. (2010). Acetaminophen
reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science, 21, 931–937.
260 DeWall, Bushman
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... From an evolutionary perspective, it is adaptive to repair or form new relationships after rejection to protect against further exclusion (Baumeister & Leary, 1995;Weerdmeester & Lange, 2019;Williams & Nida, 2011). Yet, ample evidence from the playground to the pub demonstrates that rejection commonly elicits aggression (Chester & DeWall, 2016;DeWall & Bushman, 2011;Leary et al., 2003). Using meta-analytic techniques, we sought to answer a critical debate in the literature: Does social rejection more commonly elicit prosocial behavior or aggressive behavior? ...
... Despite these differences, we believe there is utility to quantifying the extent to which aggressive and prosocial behavior are elicited by social events that broadly threaten the fundamental need to belong (DeWall & Bushman, 2011). For the purpose of this manuscript, we refer to these social events, which include social rejection, exclusion, and ostracism, as "rejection" or "social rejection." ...
... Rejection resulted in more aggressive, or less prosocial, behavior with effect sizes that were medium in size. This contradicts the theory that individuals behave prosocially to reduce the likelihood of future rejection (DeBono et al., 2017;DeWall & Bushman, 2011;Leary et al., 2003). This discrepancy may be linked to the fact that rejectionelicited prosocial behavior has often been operationalized as affiliative behavior (e.g., nonverbal mimicry; Lee & Shrum, 2012), rather than behavior that directly confers explicit personal benefit. ...
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Social rejection elicits profound feelings of distress. From an evolutionary perspective, the best way to alleviate this distress is to behave prosocially, minimizing the likelihood of further exclusion. Yet, examples ranging from the playground to the pub suggest rejection commonly elicits aggression. Opposing theoretical perspectives and discordant empirical results have left a basic question unanswered: does rejection more commonly elicit prosocial or aggressive behavior? We conducted three meta‐analyses (one with studies measuring aggressive behavior; one with studies measuring prosocial behavior; and one with studies measuring both aggressive and prosocial behavior; N = 3864) to quantify: (1) the extent to which social rejection elicits prosocial or aggressive behavior and (2) potential moderating effects on these relations. Random‐effects models revealed medium effects such that social rejection potentiated aggressive behavior (k = 19; d = 0.41, p < .0001) and attenuated prosocial behavior (k = 7; d = 0.59, p < .0001), an effect that remained consistent even when participants were given the option to behave prosocially or aggressively (k = 15; d = 0.71, p < .0001). These results cast doubt on the theory that rejection triggers prosocial behavior, and instead suggest it is a robust elicitor of aggression. Statement of Relevance: To our knowledge, these meta‐analyses are the first to directly test whether social rejection elicits aggressive or prosocial behavior. By including a comprehensive collection of both published and unpublished research studies, and examining a wide variety of previously untested moderators, we show that social rejection robustly elicits aggressive behavior and inhibits prosocial behavior. Additionally, we demonstrate that aggressive behavior following social rejection is not simply a function of limited choices in response options. In fact, aggressive behavior was evoked even when the option to engage in prosocial behavior was provided. Furthermore, we conducted a comprehensive narrative review of the neural mechanisms underlying social rejection‐elicited aggressive and prosocial behavior to supplement primary analyses. Overall, we believe that our work makes a critical theoretical contribution to the field.
... We do so in the context of career inclusion to elucidate the psycho-social processes that VIs use to overcome and transcend the barriers of stereotypes, stigma, and discrimination. We also observe that, to date, researchers have not explored what VIs and other PWDs do to foster acceptance by co-workers, and how they do this, which is a key factor in the success of PWDs (DeWall and Bushman, 2011;McLaughlin et al., 2004). The contribution of the study will further expand the existing literature on career ecosystem theory and career sustainability and integrate both literature streams in the light of 'downplaying' strategies adopted by PWDs (which also included some VIs) aimed at gaining improved evaluations from others (managing impressions of others for positive evaluations from the non-disabled) (Lyons et al., 2016). ...
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... Third, this study acknowledges the critical role of acceptance orchestrated by the VIs (personal agency) in achieving their career goals (DeWall and Bushman, 2011;Kirton and Greene, 2019;McLaughlin et al., 2004;Vornholt et al., 2013) extending the literature on acceptance of PWDs by the co-workers in the workplace. The high career attainment participants through high performance at work refute stereotypes of low competence and low performance leading to their positive evaluations by their coworkers (Bengisu and Balta, 2011). ...
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... Scholars conducting similar research have typically examined social exclusion in juxtaposition to the long-established universal human need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) and form enduring positive relationships (Dewall & Bushman, 2011). This desire to form mutual relationships and belong to a group, however, also gives rise to pain associated with rejection or nonacceptance. ...
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Ostracism is such a widely used and powerful tactic that the authors tested whether people would be affected by it even under remote and artificial circumstances. In Study 1, 1,486 participants from 62 countries accessed the authors' on-line experiment on the Internet. They were asked to use mental visualization while playing a virtual tossing game with two others (who were actually computer generated and controlled). Despite the minimal nature of their experience, the more participants were ostracized, the more they reported feeling bad, having less control, and losing a sense of belonging. In Study 2, ostracized participants were more likely to conform on a subsequent task. The results are discussed in terms of supporting K. D. Williams's (1997) need threat theory of ostracism.
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Affiliation2Seeking Acceptance and Belonging3Monitoring Relational Value and Social Connections4Varieties of Rejection-Related Events5Reactions to Rejection6Dealing With Threats to Affiliation, Acceptance, and Belonging7Long-Term Consequences of Rejection8Summary
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Ostracism is such a widely used and powerful tactic that the authors tested whether people would be affected by it even under remote and artificial circumstances. In Study 1, 1,486 participants from 62 countries accessed the authors' on-line experiment on the Internet. They were asked to use mental visualization while playing a virtual tossing game with two others (who were actually computer generated and controlled). Despite the minimal nature of their experience, the more participants were ostracized, the more they reported feeling bad, having less control, and losing a sense of belonging. In Study 2, ostracized participants were more likely to conform on a subsequent task. The results are discussed in terms of supporting K. D. Williams's (1997) need threat theory of ostracism. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved). (from the journal abstract)
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Nine experiments tested competing hypotheses regarding nonconscious affective responses to acute social exclusion and how such responses may relate to positive mental health. The results strongly and consistently indicated that acute social exclusion increased nonconscious positive affect. Compared to nonexcluded participants, excluded participants recalled more positive memories from childhood than did accepted participants (Experiment 1), gave greater weight to positive emotion in their judgments of word similarity (Experiments 2 and 3), and completed more ambiguous word stems with happy words (Experiments 4a and 4b). This process was apparently automatic, as participants asked to imagine exclusion overestimated explicit distress and underestimated implicit positivity (Experiment 3). Four final experiments showed that this automatic emotion regulation process was found among participants low (but not high) in depressive symptoms (Experiments 5 and 6) and among participants high (but not low) in self-esteem (Experiments 7 and 8). These findings suggest that acute exclusion sets in motion an automatic emotion regulation process in which positive emotions become highly accessible, which relates to positive mental health.