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Who Is Most Vulnerable to Social Rejection? The Toxic Combination of Low Self-Esteem and Lack of Negative Emotion Differentiation on Neural Responses to Rejection

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People have a fundamental need to belong that, when satisfied, is associated with mental and physical well-being. The current investigation examined what happens when the need to belong is thwarted-and how individual differences in self-esteem and emotion differentiation modulate neural responses to social rejection. We hypothesized that low self-esteem would predict heightened activation in distress-related neural responses during a social rejection manipulation, but that this relationship would be moderated by negative emotion differentiation-defined as adeptness at using discrete negative emotion categories to capture one's felt experience. Combining daily diary and neuroimaging methodologies, the current study showed that low self-esteem and low negative emotion differentiation represented a toxic combination that was associated with stronger activation during social rejection (versus social inclusion) in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula-two regions previously shown to index social distress. In contrast, individuals with greater negative emotion differentiation did not show stronger activation in these regions, regardless of their level of self-esteem; fitting with prior evidence that negative emotion differentiation confers equanimity in emotionally upsetting situations.
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Who Is Most Vulnerable to Social Rejection? The Toxic
Combination of Low Self-Esteem and Lack of Negative
Emotion Differentiation on Neural Responses to
Rejection
Todd B. Kashdan
1
*
.
, C. Nathan DeWall
2.
, Carrie L. Masten
3
, Richard S. Pond Jr.
4
, Caitlin Powell
5
,
David Combs
2
, David R. Schurtz
2
, Antonina S. Farmer
1
1Department of Psychology and Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, United States of America, 2Department of
Psychology, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, United States of America, 3Center for the Mind and Brain, University of California-Davis, Davis, California, United
States of America, 4Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, North Carolina, United States of America, 5Department of
Psychology, Georgia College & State University, Milledgeville, Georgia, United States of America
Abstract
People have a fundamental need to belong that, when satisfied, is associated with mental and physical well-being. The
current investigation examined what happens when the need to belong is thwarted—and how individual differences in self-
esteem and emotion differentiation modulate neural responses to social rejection. We hypothesized that low self-esteem
would predict heightened activation in distress-related neural responses during a social rejection manipulation, but that this
relationship would be moderated by negative emotion differentiation—defined as adeptness at using discrete negative
emotion categories to capture one’s felt experience. Combining daily diary and neuroimaging methodologies, the current
study showed that low self-esteem and low negative emotion differentiation represented a toxic combination that was
associated with stronger activation during social rejection (versus social inclusion) in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and
anterior insula—two regions previously shown to index social distress. In contrast, individuals with greater negative
emotion differentiation did not show stronger activation in these regions, regardless of their level of self-esteem; fitting with
prior evidence that negative emotion differentiation confers equanimity in emotionally upsetting situations.
Citation: Kashdan TB, DeWall N, Masten CL, Pond RS Jr, Powell C, et al. (2014) Who Is Most Vulnerable to Social Rejection? The Toxic Combination of Low Self-
Esteem and Lack of Negative Emotion Differentiation on Neural Responses to Rejection. PLoS ONE 9(3): e90651. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090651
Editor: Jon D. Elhai, Univ of Toledo, United States of America
Received December 10, 2013; Accepted January 8, 2014; Published March 4, 2014
Copyright: ß2014 Kashdan et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits
unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: Publication of this article was funded in part by the George Mason University Libraries Open Access Publishing Fund. The funders had no role in study
design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
* E-mail: tkashdan@gmu.edu
.These authors contributed equally to this work.
Introduction
Humans have unique attributes, idiosyncrasies, and other
qualities that set them apart from others. Some people chronically
perceive that others reject or exclude them, leading them to have
relatively low self-esteem [1,2]. Other people consistently perceive
that others accept and include them, leading them to have
relatively high self-esteem. Despite these differences, most humans
share a common desire to have a few positive and lasting
relationships that, when thwarted, produces an assortment of
negative consequences for mental and physical well-being [3–11].
Various brain regions have been implicated in the process by
which people monitor whether others are evaluating them—and
activation in these regions is modulated by individual differences
in self-esteem [12,13]. What remains unclear, however, is whether
this modulation is affected by people’s ability to be aware of and
clarify/distinguish their negative emotional experiences (a defining
feature of emotional intelligence [14,15]).
The current study fills this gap in the literature by focusing on
how individual differences in emotion differentiation—the ability
to differentiate one’s emotional experiences into discrete categories
[16,17]—may moderate the relationship between self-esteem and
neural responses to social rejection. We predicted that self-esteem
would modulate neural responses to social rejection, such that
lower levels of self-esteem would relate to greater activation in the
brain regions associated with ‘social pain’—the negative affective
experience that accompanies rejection by others. Crucially, we
anticipated that this modulation would be isolated to people who
have deficiencies in their ability to differentiate their negative
emotional experiences into discrete categories. Hence, low self-
esteem, coupled with low emotion differentiation, would represent
a toxic combination in terms of neural responses to social
rejection.
Neural Responses to Social Rejection and Social
Feedback: Self-Esteem Matters
Neuroimaging research has identified some of the primary
regions that are involved in the experience of being rejected by
others. Specifically, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC)
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and anterior insula are activated when people are being socially
rejected compared to when they are being treated equally
[6,18,19] and also in response to viewing rejection-related images
[19]. Moreover, activity in the dACC and anterior insula are
elevated among individuals who display greater distress as a result
of being rejected by others [18,20]. Thus, these two regions are
often linked with the social pain of being rejected by others,
overlapping with neural activation observed during physical pain
[21].
Recently, researchers have examined whether self-esteem
modulates these neural responses to social rejection. According
to sociometer theory, self-esteem functions primarily to assist
individuals in perceiving others’ reactions and to alert individuals
to the possibility of social rejection [1,2] People who generally
perceive that others reject or exclude them tend to have low self-
esteem, whereas people who generally perceive that others accept
or include them tend to have high self-esteem [1]. Put simply, a
person’s self-esteem level can be used as a gauge of that person’s
perceived inclusionary status [22,23]. Because people with low
self-esteem perceive that others tend to reject and exclude them,
experiences of social rejection should produce greater activation in
regions associated with the distress of social rejection. Moreover,
people with low self-esteem may have enhanced sensitivity to the
valence of social feedback they receive because such feedback
provides them with information about their social standing.
This is precisely the case. Two recent investigations have
examined the role of self-esteem in modulating neural responses to
social rejection and social feedback. The first study used the same
virtual ball-tossing paradigm that was employed in the current
investigation [12]. In that study, people with low self-esteem
showed the greatest activation in the dACC in response to social
rejection (versus inclusion). Thus, low self-esteem was a risk factor
for heightened neural distress responses associated with social
rejection.
The second investigation used a different manipulation, in
which participants had their picture taken and then received
positive or negative feedback from confederates regarding their
photograph [13]. In that investigation, participants with low self-
esteem showed the greatest activation in the ventral anterior
cingulate cortex/medial prefrontal cortex (vACC/mPFC) in
response to positive feedback (versus negative feedback). These
findings suggest that low self-esteem was associated with biased
salience of social feedback.
On the surface, these two investigations produced opposite
results—in one study [12], low self-esteem was associated with
greater dACC activation in response to social rejection (vs.
inclusion), whereas the other study [13] showed that low self-
esteem was associated with stronger activation in the vACC/
mPFC in response to positive feedback (vs. negative feedback). A
large part of this discrepancy lies in differences between the ball-
tossing paradigm and the social feedback paradigm. Yet, both
investigations showed similarity in that responses previously
documented in relation to the tasks (dACC activation in the
ball-tossing paradigm; vACC/mPFC activation in the social
feedback paradigm) were enhanced among people with low self-
esteem people, suggesting that self-esteem may play an important
role in modulating neural reactivity to information about one’s
relevant social standing.
The current work seeks to extend recent research using the ball-
tossing paradigm showing that low self-esteem is associated with
heightened neural distress to social rejection [12], investigating
whether this relationship is more pronounced in people who have
difficulty differentiating their negative emotional experiences into
discrete categories. We focused on the ball-tossing paradigm in
order to provide a first step in understanding the role of emotion
differentiation on the relationship between self-esteem and neural
responses to social rejection. If low self-esteem and low emotion
differentiation represent a toxic combination of forces involved in
neural responses to social rejection, then researchers will have a
better understanding of when self-esteem matters in predicting
neural responses to social rejection—and when it does not.
Emotion Differentiation
Affective science has focused predominantly on the phenome-
nology of emotions. The core building blocks of emotion are
valence (i.e., degree of pleasantness-unpleasantness) and arousal
(i.e., the degree of energy experienced) [24,25]. Human beings
have the unique ability to describe and reflect on their feelings,
often referred to as meta-emotion and meta-cognition. Commonly
investigated aspects of meta-emotion include people’s ability to
identify, understand, differentiate, and verbally describe what is
being felt at a given point of time (e.g., [26–28]). Specifically, a
diminished ability to differentiate one’s emotions predicts behav-
ioral responses and well-being to a greater degree than simply the
intensity and frequency of emotions experienced [29,30]. Of most
relevance to the current study, the process of emotional
differentiation can influence how people react to stressful
situations.
Most researchers interested in emotion differentiation have
relied on single-occasion, cross-sectional survey designs. For
instance, people scoring lower on a self-report scale of emotion
differentiation recovered more slowly after being shown a
distressing film, and ruminated more about the experience over
time [31]. Other studies have shown that trait survey measures of
emotion differentiation correlate positively with openness to
experience [32] and positive social functioning [33]. However,
the methodological limitations of these studies limit our ability to
form inferences about the value of differentiating emotions. To
understand the temporal sequencing from emotion differentiation
to adaptive self-regulation, there is value in collecting within-
person data over time, in the natural contexts where people
experience, reflect on, and react to emotions and stressors.
In a small body of studies, instead of asking people to answer
questions on a 7-point Likert scale of whether they understand and
differentiate their emotions (e.g., [31,33]), researchers measured
their tendencies to classify felt experiences into discrete emotion
categories across multiple situations over time [16,17,34]. Being
unable to consistently attend to, clarify, and differentiate what is
being felt in a given moment should decrease the amount of
cognitive capacity that is available to process initial emotional
responses to stress [35,36]. Resulting consequences should include
greater stress reactivity [37,38]. With data from daily process
approaches, where information is collected from random moments
or at the end of each day for several weeks, the evidence supports
these theoretical models. Specifically, people who fare worse in
discerning what they feel in their daily life showed greater risk
when confronting stress, and possessed greater negative attitudes
and greater distress about intense emotions [17,34,37,39]. In
contrast, individuals who show ease at discerning what they are
feeling beyond crude descriptions of ‘‘pleasant’’ or ‘‘unpleasant’’
states show less intense, short-lived distress reactions.
In the current study, we collected data on people’s self-esteem
and emotional experiences every day over the course of a three-
week assessment period [40]. By using this rich, within-person data
to assess individual differences, we can be more confident that we
captured the dynamic nature of people’s personality. Given their
heightened risk for distress in response to upsetting events, we
predicted that people with low self-esteem who were also low in
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emotion differentiation would show the strongest activation in the
dACC and anterior insula in response to social rejection. In
contrast, we predicted that self-esteem would bear no significant
relationship to activation in these regions among people high in
emotion differentiation. We focused on emotion differentiation of
negative emotional states because they are most closely associated
with social rejection [41].
Method
Ethics Statement
This research and consent procedure was approved by the
University of Kentucky’s Institutional Review Board. All partic-
ipants provided written informed consent prior to participating in
the study. There were no minors/children enrolled in the study.
Participant consent was recorded via paper-and-pencil forms.
Participants
Participants included 25 (16 females) healthy, right-handed
undergraduates (mean age 20.94, SD = 5.24). They reported no
history of claustrophobia and were thoroughly screened for metal
and other MRI contraindications.
Ten participants had been taking daily doses of acetaminophen
(the remainder took placebo) for the three weeks preceding the
scan, as part of a separate study examining effects of acetamin-
ophen vs. placebo on neural responses to social exclusion [61]. To
ensure that this pre-scan exposure to acetaminophen (or placebo)
did not impact the current findings, we controlled for condition
(acetaminophen vs. placebo) in all behavioral and neuroimaging
analyses. Neither self-esteem nor emotion differentiation signifi-
cantly differed as a function of experimental condition. There is no
overlap between any of the analyses reported in the current report
and those reported in DeWall et al [61].
Procedures
Three weeks before the scan, participants completed daily
records on a dedicated website about their self-esteem and
negative emotional experiences over a three-week assessment
period. All daily entries were time-and-date stamped, assuring that
a single entry was completed each day. From this within-person
data, we assessed dispositional self-esteem and emotion differen-
tiation (see details below). On the day of the scan, participants
were told they would play a virtual ball-tossing game in the
scanner (Cyberball [8]), which would be played via the Internet
with two other same-sex participants in other scanners. To
enhance the credibility of the task, participants were provided with
personal information about the other players (e.g., name, age,
hometown, major area of study) so that they could become
‘acquainted’ with them before playing the ball-tossing game. In
reality, participants played with a preset computer program, and
the player information was prepared in advance.
At the beginning of each round of the game, two virtual players
appeared in the top left and right corners of the computer screen.
An arm was located at the bottom center of the screen, which
represented the participant’s hand. After 9 seconds, the virtual
player located in the top left corner began the game by tossing the
ball to one of the players. Each time participants received a ball
toss, they indicated which of the other players they would like to
toss the ball to next by pressing one of two buttons. In the first
round of the game, participants were included for the entire
duration of the game. In the second round, the other players
stopped throwing the ball to the participant after he/she had
received three throws. Participants were excluded for the
remainder of the game and watched while the other players
continued the game without them. Following the scan, participants
reported their social distress resulting from this exclusion (see
details below), in order to ensure that participants noticed the
exclusion and felt distress as a result. Finally, they were debriefed
about the deception involved in the study and were given an
opportunity to withdraw their data. No participant expressed
suspicion regarding the cover story or chose to withdraw their
data.
Behavioral Measures
Self-esteem. At the end of each day for a three-week
assessment period, participants completed the state self-esteem
scale (SSES [42]). The SSES assesses fluctuations in feelings of self-
worth across three dimensions: social, performance, and appear-
ance. This measure consists of 20 items, which are each answered
using a 5-point scale from 1 (not at all)to5(extremely). Example
items include ‘‘I am worried about whether I am regarded as a
success or a failure’’ (social subscale; reverse-scored), ‘‘I feel
confident about my abilities’’ (performance subscale), and ‘‘I feel
satisfied about the way my body looks right now’’ (appearance
subscale). Items were reverse-coded when appropriate and
summed for each day to create a daily composite score for self-
esteem across all three dimensions.
Using the program Hierarchical Linear Modeling 6.08 [43], we
examined the reliability of this daily diary measure with a three-
level unconditional model with items nested within days, and days
nested within people (see [44] for rationale). In such an analysis,
the reliability of the Level 1 intercept is the functional equivalent of
a day level Cronbach’s alpha, adjusted for differences among days
and among people. Results found that the 20 items of daily self-
esteem were reliable (.98). Prior work has shown that the SSES
shows consistently high correlations with trait self-esteem measures
and has a similar relationship in predicting neural responses to
social evaluative feedback [13]. Therefore, we focused our analyses
on total SSES scores over three weeks to provide a valid
assessment of individual differences in self-esteem.
Negative emotion differentiation. At the end of each day
for a three-week assessment period, participants completed the
negative affect subscale of the positive and negative affect schedule
(PANAS [45]). The PANAS negative affect subscale assesses daily
negative emotional states. The PANAS negative affect subscale
consists of 10 items, which are each answered using a 5-point scale
from 1 (very slightly or not at all)to5(extremely). Example items include
‘‘distressed’’, ‘‘nervous’’, and ‘‘hostile’’. We examined the reliabil-
ity of the daily diary measure of negative affect, again, with a
three-level unconditional model with items nested within days, and
days nested within people [44]. Results found that the 10 items of
daily negative affect were reliable (.74).
An index of negative emotion differentiation was computed by
calculating average intraclass correlations with absolute agreement
between the negative emotion adjectives across the assessment
period for each participant [17,34]. Larger correlation scores
indicated less differentiation of emotions. To facilitate interpreta-
tion of analyses, we then reverse coded this variable. Thus, higher
values (i.e., negative correlation values that were closest to zero)
pertained to higher levels of emotion differentiation.
Social distress manipulation check. Immediately follow-
ing the scan, participants completed the Need-Threat Scale (NTS
[8,46]), which measures social distress resulting from the exclusion
round of the game. The NTS assesses 20 subjectively experienced
consequences of being excluded, including ratings of: self-esteem
(‘‘Playing the game made me feel insecure’’), belongingness (‘‘I felt
like an outsider during the game’’), meaningfulness (‘‘I think it was
useless that I participated in the game’’), and control (‘‘I had the
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feeling that I affected the course of the game’’), using a scale
ranging from 1 (strongly disagree)to7(strongly agree). Items were
reverse coded when appropriate and averaged to create a
composite score of social distress with high reliability (a= .92).
In the present study, descriptive information for the NTS is
detailed as part of the results section as evidence that participants
were aware of, and distressed by, the exclusion during Cyberball.
Correlations between NTS scores and brain activity during
exclusion compared to inclusion (examined via both ROI and
whole brain analyses) for this sample of participants are reported
elsewhere [47].
fMRI Data Acquisition
Data were aquired on a 3 Tesla Siemens Trio scanner at the
University of Kentucky. Functional neuroimaging data were
collected during each round of the ball-tossing game using a
T2*-weighted gradient echo sequence with the following param-
eters: 30 ms echo time, 64664 matrix, 2246224 mm field of view,
40 3.5-mm axial, slices acquired in interleaved order, 2 s repetition
time. These parameters allow whole brain coverage with 3.5 mm
cubic voxels. A 3D shim was performed before all EPI image
acquisitions.
fMRI Data Analysis
Neuroimaging data were preprocessed and analyzed using
Statistical Parametric Mapping (SPM5; Wellcome Department of
Cognitive Neurology, Institute of Neurology, London, UK).
Preprocessing of the neuroimaging data included realignment of
images to correct for head motion, normalization of images into a
standard stereotactic space defined by the Montreal Neurological
Institute and the International Consortium for Brain Mapping,
and spatial smoothing using an 8 mm Gaussian kernel, full width
at half maximum, to increase signal-to-noise ratio.
Each round of the game was modeled as a run with each period
of inclusion and exclusion modeled as blocks within the run for a
total of two inclusion blocks (one during the first run (60 seconds)
and one during the second run prior to exclusion (42 seconds) and
one exclusion block (60 seconds). The order of the runs was kept
constant across all participants. After modeling the ball-tossing
game, we calculated linear contrasts for each participant
comparing the exclusion block to the inclusion blocks. These
individual contrast images were then used in ROI analyses across
all participants.
Region of Interest Analyses
Based on a priori hypotheses regarding the involvement of the
dACC and anterior insula in processing social rejection, we
utilized anatomically-defined region of interest (ROI) analyses.
Thus, we calculated differential activity in each ROI during
exclusion versus inclusion, and examined how this activity related
to individuals’ self-esteem, emotion differentiation, and the self-
esteem by emotion differentiation interaction (significance was
defined as p,.05).
ROI extraction was performed using the Marsbar toolbox
within SPM. The dACC ROI was anatomically defined as the
portion of Brodmann’s areas 24 and 32 (as defined by the
PickAtlas) posterior to y= 34. It was defined as a single midline
structure, rather than two separate right and left regions, given the
lack of spatial separation between its right and left hemispheric
portions and to be consistent with standard anatomical definitions
(see Figure 1, Panel A). The bilateral anterior insula ROI was
anatomically defined as the portion of the insula, as defined by the
AAL atlas that is located anterior to y= 0 (see Figure 1, Panels B
and C). Mean parameter estimates for each participant (that
model the amplitude of the BOLD response during exclusion vs.
inclusion) were extracted and averaged across all the voxels in each
ROI. Details of the main effect analyses testing this difference in
activity during exclusion compared to inclusion within each ROI
are reported elsewhere [47].
To examine the interactive effect of self-esteem and emotion
differentiation related to heightened activity during exclusion
versus inclusion in each ROI, these parameter estimates were
entered as dependent variables in multiple regression analyses in
SPSS. Specifically, for each ROI a hierarchical regression analysis
was performed in which self-esteem and emotion differentiation
were entered in the first step and the self-esteem by emotion
differentiation interaction was entered in the second step (following
the guidelines of [48]). We also controlled for the effect of
condition by including it as a covariate in all analyses (see Footnote
1). Thus, we examined the role of emotion differentiation in
moderating the impact of self-esteem on neural activity during
exclusion versus inclusion in the dACC and anterior insula ROIs.
Given our directional predictions, all significance tests were one-
tailed.
Figure 1. Regions of interest for exclusion vs. inclusion analyses. Regions of the dACC (panel A; [0 24 24]), right anterior insula (panel B; [39
21–15]), and left anterior insula (panel C; [239 0 215]) in which activity during exclusion vs. inclusion related to the interaction between self-esteem
and emotion differentiation (after controlling for acetaminophen condition; see Footnote 1).
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090651.g001
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Results
Descriptive Information
SSES scores ranged from 47.89 to 95.19 (M= 76.29, SD
= 13.11), which is consistent with previously published scores
[13,42]. Emotion differentiation scores ranged from 20.03 to 0.91
(M= 0.52, SD = 0.28).
Social Distress Manipulation Check
Participants reported moderate levels of social distress following
the exclusion round of Cyberball, with NTS scores ranging from
2.10 to 5.80 (M= 3.99, SD = 1.00). Following Bolling and
colleagues [49], we conducted a one-sample t-test to determine
whether NTS scores differed significantly from the minimum score
of 1 that would reflect no social distress. As expected, the average
NTS score was significantly different than the minimum score of 1,
t= 19.66, p,.001. This suggests that the Cyberball manipulation
was successful in eliciting rejection-related feelings of distress
among participants.
Region of Interest Regression Analyses
We examined how self-esteem and emotion differentiation
interacted to predict the difference in activity during exclusion
versus inclusion in the dACC and anterior insula ROIs. We
conducted a hierarchical regression analysis in which self-esteem
and emotion differentiation were entered in the first step and the
self-esteem by emotion differentiation interaction was entered in
the second step. To facilitate interpretation, we centered all
predictors prior to analysis.
As expected, there was a significant self-esteem by emotion
differentiation interaction in the dACC ROI, b= 0.41, t= 2.24,
p= .02 (see Figure 2, Panel A). The main effect for self-esteem was
also significant, which replicates prior working showing that low
self-esteem is associated with greater cingulate activation to social
rejection, b=20.43, t=21.98, p=.03. The emotion differentia-
tion main effect did not approach significance, b= 0.08, t= 0.36,
p= .36. To clarify the nature of the interaction, we examined the
effect of self-esteem at relatively low (i.e., 1 standard deviation
below the mean) and high (i.e., 1 standard deviation above the
mean) levels of emotion differentiation [48]. Among low emotion
differentiators, lower self-esteem was strongly associated with
greater dACC activation in response to social rejection, b=20.90,
t=23.70, p,.001. In contrast, self-esteem bore no significant
relation to dACC activation among high emotion differentiators,
b= 0.04, t= 0.12, p=.45.
Next, we re-ran these analyses using separate ROIs in the right
and left anterior insula. The self-esteem by emotion differentiation
interaction was significant for both the right (b= 0.46, t= 2.68,
p,.01; see Figure 2, Panel B) and left (b= 0.43, t= 2.28, p= .02;
see Figure 2, Panel C) anterior insula. Main effects for self-esteem
[right: b=20.40, t=21.95, p= .03; left: b=20.38, t=21.68,
p= .05] and emotion differentiation [right: b=20.07, t=20.34,
p= .37, left: b= 0.06, t= 0.27, p= .40] indicated that lower self-
esteem predicted greater anterior insula activation and emotion
differentiation was unrelated to anterior insula activation.
Among low emotion differentiators, lower self-esteem predicted
higher right (b=20.92, t=24.05, p,.001) and left (b=20.87,
t=23.47, p= .001) anterior insula activation in response to social
rejection, whereas high emotion differentiators showed no
significant activation in the right (b= 0.13, t= 0.39, p= .35) or
left (b= 0.12, t= 0.32, p= .38) anterior insula. Thus, low self-
esteem and low emotion differentiation provided a negative
combination in predicting neural responses to social exclusion.
People high in emotion differentiation consistently reported
greater equanimity, with similar reactivity to the inclusion and
exclusion conditions in both the dACC and anterior insula.
Discussion
Most people want to be part of a human pack. In our
evolutionary history, humans lived in small groups in which social
rejection caused more than tears and heartbreak—it often resulted
in death. Because fitness is enhanced by adaptations that intensify
the motivation to have positive and lasting relationships with
others, humans with the neural resources to better monitor
whether others are rejecting or accepting them would have
optimized their ability to survive and reproduce. This capacity to
gauge one’s inclusionary status forms the basis for why people have
self-esteem [1,2] People who perceive themselves as rejected from
the pack tend to have low self-esteem, and they show enhanced
sensitivity to feedback regarding their social standing [12,13].
Nevertheless, low self-esteem may modulate neural activation to
social rejection depending on how well people identify, under-
stand, and differentiate their negative emotional experiences.
Given prior work demonstrating that low emotion differentiation is
associated with heightened distress to upsetting events [17,37,39]
we predicted that low self-esteem and low emotion differentiation
would prove a negative combination in predicting neural
responses to social rejection. We sought to add to existing
literature that studies combinations of theoretically relevant
individual difference variables, instead of single constructs in
isolation, to understand how people’s behavior in daily life affects
reactivity to social stressors.
The current study provided consistent evidence in support of
the hypothesis that emotion differentiation—one of several facets
of emotional intelligence [15,50]—amplifies the risk associated
with low self-esteem. In regions previously associated with
responses to social rejection, lower self-esteem was associated with
greater activation in regions previously associated with responses
to social rejection using this paradigm (i.e., dACC and anterior
insula [6,12,18]). Crucially, this relationship between self-esteem
and neural activity was limited to participants low in emotion
differentiation. Among participants high in emotion differentia-
tion, self-esteem was unrelated to activation in these brain regions.
Thus, our findings offer novel evidence regarding how individual
differences in self-esteem and emotion differentiation interact to
predict neural activation to social rejection.
The current work has broad implications for both fMRI and
behavioral studies that investigate the role of self-esteem in
predicting emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and neural responses.
Although self-esteem research has flourished in the behavioral
literature for several decades (see [51] for a review), relatively little
research has examined the role of self-esteem in modulating neural
activation. Together with other recent reports [12,13], the current
research suggests that neuroscientists can profit from exploring the
implications of individual differences in self-esteem for drawing
functional inferences about brain systems and psychological inferences
about the mechanisms underlying behavior [52]. Crucially, the
current work suggests that emotion differentiation can accentuate
or eliminate the relationship between self-esteem and neural
activation. To our knowledge, this is the first report to demonstrate
that emotion differentiation interacts with self-esteem to predict
any type of response. Self-esteem is associated with a broad array
of negative outcomes (e.g., mental illness, substance dependence
[53–55], but it is possible that these relationships are most
pronounced among low emotion differentiators and absent among
high emotion differentiators.
Low Self-Esteem and Emotion Differentiation
PLOS ONE | www.plosone.org 5 March 2014 | Volume 9 | Issue 3 | e90651
Limitations and Future Directions
The current research offers novel evidence that neural responses
to social rejection depend in part on the interaction between self-
esteem and emotion differentiation. There are some limitations to
the current study that may serve as avenues for future research.
First, the current study did not examine whether the interactive
effect of self-esteem and emotion differentiation on neural
responses had implications for behavior. Social rejection impairs
self-regulation [3,5] and increases derogation of the people doing
the rejecting [56]. It is possible that this pattern would be more
pronounced among people who are low in both self-esteem and
emotion differentiation. Future research may explore this possi-
bility.
A second limitation is that the current study did not assess
whether our effects had implications for physiological markers
linked to heightened distress, such as heightened cortisol [56,57]
Figure 2. Interactive effects of emotion differentiation and self-esteem on neural activation during exclusion vs. inclusion.
Associations between self-esteem (SE) and activity during exclusion vs. inclusion in the dACC (panel A), right anterior insula (panel B), and left anterior
insula (panel C) ROIs, shown separately for high emotion differentiators and low emotion differentiators.
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090651.g002
Low Self-Esteem and Emotion Differentiation
PLOS ONE | www.plosone.org 6 March 2014 | Volume 9 | Issue 3 | e90651
and proinflammatory cytokine activity [58]. Low self-esteem and
low emotion differentiation may prove an especially toxic
combination when predicting cortisol and proinflammatory
cytokine activity to social rejection and other stressors. Moreover,
recent work has shown that activation in the dACC and anterior
insula to social rejection is most pronounced among people who
have a strong proinflammatory cytokine response to a social
stressor [59]. Future work may explore whether these effects are
exacerbated among people with low self-esteem and low emotion
differentiation and whether they are diminished or even eliminat-
ed among people high in emotion differentiation.
Future research may explore the role of joint attention in further
modulating the interactive relationship between emotion differen-
tiation and self-esteem on neural responses to social rejection. In a
recent study, participants who responded to a joint attention bid
from an animated character showed stronger activation in the
anterior mPFC, whereas they showed greater activation in the
ventral striatum when they initiated joint attention with an
animated character [60]. By associating others with reward,
having participants initiate joint attention with others may reduce
the negative effects of low self-esteem and low emotion difference
on neural responses to social rejection.
Concluding Remarks
People have a fundamental need to belong that, when thwarted,
produces an assortment of negative consequences. But responses to
rejection are hardly uniform. People with low self-esteem respond
strongly to social rejection in terms of their neural activation in
regions associated with distress [12]. Our findings suggest that low
self-esteem and low emotion differentiation represent a toxic
combination when predicting neural responses to social rejection.
From a slightly different perspective, the current work also
provides evidence that an important facet of emotional intelli-
gence—emotion differentiation—can buffer people from the pain
of social rejection. Regardless of their self-esteem, high emotion
differentiators showed relative equanimity in response to social
rejection. By recognizing the role of emotion differentiation in
shaping neural responses to social rejection, researchers will better
understand when low self-esteem might be particularly problem-
atic for responding to social rejection. Furthermore, these findings
open potential clinical avenues to explore for buffering people with
low self-esteem against the impact of rejection with interventions
that improve emotion differentiation ability.
Author Contributions
Conceived and designed the experiments: CND CLM TBK. Performed
the experiments: RP CP DC DRS. Analyzed the data: TBK CND CLM
RSP ASF. Wrote the paper: TBK CND RSP CP DC DRS ASF.
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... In addition to this, research on relational self-construal; the degree to which a person defines themselves via their interpersonal relationships; further supports the premise of SMT indicating that relational value impacts one's sense of self and self-esteem (Jiang et al., 2016;Orth et al., 2012;Wagner et al., 2013). It is indicated that people that placed greater emphasis on the definition of self through interpersonal relationships had higher levels of self-esteem but their self-esteem was more likely to decrease with social rejection than those who placed less value on interpersonal relationships (Jiang et al., 2016;Kashdan et al., 2014). In further support of SMT, relationship self-construal did not impact levels of self-esteem following failure as it did with rejection (Jiang et al., 2016). ...
... SMT posits that there is a psychological system that monitors one's social environment to detect change in one's relational value and self-esteem is that sociometer (Leary, 2005). Maintaining relational value impacts individuals' daily lives and is associated with several benefits, such as improved physical and mental health (Kashdan et al., 2014) just as there are negative consequences associated with decreases in relational value that result in drops in self-esteem, such as difficulty in reproductive tasks (Caccioppo & Caccioppo, 2014), emotional disturbances (Kashdan et al., 2014;Layden et al., 2017), negatively perceived social behavior (Clerkin, Smith & Hames, 2013;Lodder, Scholte, Goossens, Engels & Verhagen, 2016), dementia (Holwerda, Deeg, Beekman, Tilburg, Stek, Jonker & Schoevers, 2014), and premature death (Brown et al., 2015;Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris & Stephenson, 2015;Leary, 2005;Tyler & Branch, 2015). ...
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Thesis
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... The dACC is often used by various studies as a region of interest, occasionally without providing any supplementary whole-brain analysis ( Chester et al., 2014 ;Chester and DeWall, 2016 ;Dewall et al., 2010 ;Kashdan et al., 2014 ). It is possible that early observed effects (e.g. ...
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