The Rejection Lab
What can researching human responses to rejection tell us about ourselves?
One spring day on Long Island, I perused hundreds of photos of single, dateable men on a computer. One man had a thick, black mane — he was a stylist in Manhattan’s Koreatown — and was hugging a smiley pug. Did I like him? Awww: I clicked Very Likely Yes. One man was a banker: Definitely No: sorry, bankers. One was a thirty-something, chiseled-featured man with an orange plaid scarf casually knotted around his neck, whom I’ll call Matthew for his resemblance to a young McConaughey. Dang. Definitely Yes.
Ten minutes later, a response from Matthew flashed across the screen. Both our profile pictures appeared, side-by-side, with the text: “Does this person like you? Very likely no.”
At that moment, if all was functioning well inside me, my parasympathetic nervous system slowed my heart rate and contracted my stomach and airways. My brain’s endogenous opioid system began to release painkillers. If I had previously been injected with displaceable radiotracers that had bound to the pain receptors in my brain, a PET scanner would have shown them being knocked off, as my own opioids replaced them, kicking into action to dampen the pain of rejection.
“Does this person like you? Very likely no.”
Scientists know that this is what a healthy body does in the wake of a social rejection. But Matthew himself had no body; he wasn’t a real person; and what “he” had just dealt me was an automated, computerized, impersonal rejection. Matthew was a lab-simulated online dating profile designed for a “social feedback task” by Dr. David T. Hsu, a professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University.
Neuroscientists have discovered that people suffer and recover from the pain of rejection the same way they process physical pain. Hsu’s work was inspired by Dr. Naomi Eisenberger’s 2003 paper “Does rejection hurt?” which examined the sensations of emotional pain that people feel when they’ve been socially rejected. Emotional and physical pain overlap so closely that one can exacerbate the other — and, spookily, can also be alleviated the same way: in a 2010 study, Dr. C. Nathan DeWall’s team at the University of Kentucky showed that popping acetaminophen could quell the pain of a negative social experience.
Hsu and other scientists have developed a hilarious set of lab tasks for stimulating people’s responses to rejection. One such paradigm is Cyberball, where simulated computer game players exclude the test subject from joining them in playing the game. Another task exposes the test subjects to pictures of people frowning at them — and not just real people, but people in paintings by Renoir and Hopper. Then there’s my favorite, the “Future Alone” paradigm. The experimenter administers a personality test to the subject, then breaks some bad news: “You’re the type who will end up alone later in life.” After administering tasks like these, researchers record the subjects’ responses, which run the gamut from impulsiveness to self-regulation, depression, or anger. “There was one experiment where, in the waiting area, they put out cookies,” said Hsu. “Given the negative information, you tend to eat more cookies.”
Hsu, whose mentor studied how the body’s natural, or endogenous, opioid system responds to physical pain, hypothesized that people’s bodies might respond to social pain the same way. Hsu’s research found that the body will optimally respond to a rejection with a flood of opioids that bond to pain receptors in the brain and dial down the negative emotions. But that was only the beginning: Hsu went on to find that the brains of patients who have depression release far fewer opioids, which contributes to a lingering feeling of depression and pain after negative social experiences. Some of us just feel rejection harder and longer. In fact, psychiatric illness may not only exacerbate the feeling of rejection, but also may be caused by the rejections themselves.
In his most recent work, Hsu’s investigating why people respond in different ways to social rejection, by withdrawing, by becoming depressed, by using drugs or alcohol, or by becoming aggressive. His research goal is to find direct applications for treating patients within dynamic, ongoing social environments that don’t necessarily offer healing or improvement once they’ve walked out of the lab. “If someone becomes depressed, because they just broke up with their significant other, and they go to see a psychiatrist, they’re still in that environment of being single or broken-up. It’s not like a punctuated, single event: ‘I just broke up with boyfriend or girlfriend, now I’m depressed, now there’s this thing called depression I have to deal with now.’ They’re still interacting with that event, beyond their diagnosis.”
But in order to study responses to rejection, Hsu first has to make the rejection happen. His own laboratory task is tweakable for different research needs, but for the unrecorded, demo scenario he prepared for me, the task required me to write a simulated dating profile and “like” the profiles of simulated potential “dates.” I would in turn be liked, or rejected, by those dates.
But in order to study responses to rejection, Hsu first has to make the rejection happen.
Here is the kicker, the corollary finding to Hsu’s work: because his test groups often include people with psychiatric illnesses, as well as mentally well control group subjects, Hsu’s methodology foregrounds full disclosure and transparency with all of his subjects, in deference to everybody’s health. Hsu and his research team always explicitly prepare subjects to expect a randomized, computerized, simulated rejection from “people” who the subjects know, for a fact, do not actually exist. And yet, regardless of how well-prepared and aware the test subjects think they are, and regardless of their mental health, the simulated rejections still result in a perceptible, measurable eruption of rejection throes. People indicate in their responses that they feel hurt or unhappy — and Hsu can record the radiotracers being knocked off their receptors, while their bodies try to dull the pain.
“If it was a real-life experience, meaning I did use deception, there’s no doubt that I may elicit stronger responses. But I’ve shown, as well as other people have, that even if people know it’s not real, these social exclusion experiments, they still respond strongly,” Hsu said. “You still respond to it. You still are sensitive. But I’ll even go further and say I believe that human beings are hard-wired or innately equipped to be sensitive to cues of rejection or exclusion, because the need to belong is such a powerful motivation and instinct.”
It is this truth about rejection, as corroborated by Hsu’s research on opioids, that most fascinates and disturbs me. No matter what we think or do, no matter how fake we know it to be, rejection’s going to hurt. We can’t make ourselves not care; we can’t control it; we can’t detach and feel nothing: it’s always going to hurt. Our brains and our bodies know that — and some of us will feel it a lot worse, and longer, than others do. If this is true for rejections that aren’t even real, how are we supposed to cope with the pain of rejections that are crushingly, devastatingly all too real?
For Hsu, full disclosure to subjects is an ethical requirement, but in order to stimulate useful results, he has to balance it with the experimental imperative of creating authentic-feeling rejections that solicit emotional involvement. His lab tasks include features familiar from real dating apps: subjects write their own profiles, with their own photos, upon which the simulated dates will supposedly offer judgment. “Most people are able to get into it,” said Hsu.
To get us started, then Ph.D student and now Dr. Ashley Yttredahl Googled an old photo I had once used as a headshot. Seeing it on her computer screen, my first thought was, Oh my god, why is my face shaped that way? Everybody in the office looked compassionately at me. “I’m sorry if that’s weird, to find your picture online,” said Yttredahl.
“Not weird at all!” I said, a little too heartily. I was not going to find this weird; I was not going to be self-conscious; I was game; I was working.
They left me alone in an empty office with a computer to write my profile. I indicated that I was a woman in her forties. I was interested in men. How to describe myself? “I like opera. I like birding.” I am 5’5 ¾” tall but claimed to be 5’6” rather than 5’5 ½”; I typed the weight I had been before breakfast that morning. Mother of god. All alone in the room, I started laughing. It wasn’t until the second time Yttredahl opened the door to check if I’d finished that I realized how exhausting the affection of unselfconsciousness could be.
The next step was fun: I scrolled through dozens of masculine profiles and chose sixteen of them. Unlike a real dating app, I had to indicate if my feeling toward each was “definitely yes,” “very likely yes,” “very likely no,” or “definitely no.” And after that…. Hsu had told me, “We ask the second question: ‘Do I think this person would like me?’ The reason we do that is because it has to do with the expectation of mutual liking, so when you are accepted or rejected, it’s that much more impactful. So, if you saw a picture of an amazingly beautiful person, you may say you like them but don’t expect them to like you back, so if they rejected you, you might not care as much, or would rationalize it very easily.”
After I chose my favorites, my ratings would be collected by the software, so that my potential matches could offer me their (simulated!) feedback: they, too, would definitely or very likely like or not like me. “We do different levels to add to the unexpectedness of the feedback,” Hsu said. “If everyone said, ‘Definitely not like you,’ after a while, it might not feel real. It just feels less realistic. If you will.”
For this demo, my brain was not being tracked with radiotracers, and that made me wonder: when I got my rejections, would I truly suffer? How could I be sure? I couldn’t help thinking that, as a writer who’d done the background reading and spent an hour talking with Hsu about the not-so-secret secrets behind his research, my emotions were even more protected, or blunted, by my hyper-awareness of the artificiality of the task. But why might I suppose that I was any different from the other test subjects? All of us knew the score in advance. If I believed in Hsu’s research, then I would have to accept the possibility that, even if I didn’t think I felt rejected or depressed, a brain scan would show that my opioids had activated in my system, just like everybody else’s, blunting my reactions. Advance knowledge of the task’s artificiality, and a minimum of personal investment, were not supposed to be enough, for either me or the other test subjects, to stop our monkey brains from feeling the crush of rejection and trying to heal it.
But without radiotracers, how would I know that I was feeling something?
Then orange-scarfed Matthew’s smiling face rolled down my screen, at the moment when I began to run out of time — and to run out of chances to rate a man as “definitely” going to like me, in order to close out the task. I sat staring at the screen, with laptop, pen, and voice recorder at hand, trying to be fully conscious of my emotional states.
I clicked that Matthew would definitely like me. I laughed at myself again.
Catching myself, on the recorder, mid-laugh: that was how I knew that I was emotionally invested in the process of this rejection. Because, as I’d clicked my expectation that he would “definitely” like me, because the task required it, I’d also thought, There is no way this man is going to like me at all. Meaning, if he’d been a real man on a dating site. Which he wasn’t. I was marshaling self-deprecation, jokiness, distancing, and concentration on the act of documentation, all as protection against the act of “liking” him and expecting him to like me back. But what I really needed to observe was myself, deflecting. Coping. Activating defense mechanisms in anticipation of a rejection that I hadn’t entirely believed I would take seriously.
This process, no matter how clinical and artificial, involved me. I’d disclosed personal, intimate preferences and insecurities. I was coming face-to-face with my not entirely unassailable self-esteem. The laboratory’s mingling of fantasy and reality corresponded too closely with my private knowledge that I was about to embark, for the first time in fifteen years, on real online dating. My dithering over Matthew forced me to confront my most private doubts about my own potential as a dating subject, and about the all-too-real “You will end up alone later in life” paradigm that is the New York singles scene.
This process, no matter how clinical and artificial, involved me. I’d disclosed personal, intimate preferences and insecurities.
And here came the rejection: Matthew saw me as a “very likely no.” I told myself, Well, of course that McConaughey-looking motherfucker wouldn’t like me, I knew that already….
Life itself is a rejection lab that is not entirely under our control, where the rejector isn’t a randomized app, and we can’t walk away knowing that it was all just an experiment. Hsu is studying practical treatment options. Yet his work opens up existential questions about pain, awareness, blocking, and transformation, about what a “normal,” “healthy,” or “mature” resilience to real-life rejection can or should look like, and what it actually means to recover, toughen up, or bounce back.
What is considered normatively, socially healthy, Hsu said, is “focusing on reconnecting with the people that are rejecting you. It is the opposite of maladaptive: lashing out, being aggressive, or being isolated.” Prefacing his next comments with the caveat that he’s not an evolutionary psychologist, he explained the theory that conciliatory behavior — self-evaluation, engagement, and attempts to reconnect with community — by rejected individuals might be considered an evolutionary, adaptive response.
“Throughout the history of the world, being isolated or cast out from society is equivalent to a death sentence…. Maybe you’re really offending someone and get beat up and not able to reproduce… and then the response is, ‘I’m doing something offensive to people, and I should change my behavior.’” But, Hsu argued, the willingness or ability to effect positive change in one’s behavior is not always available, and negative reactions to rejection are very, very common. Natural selection doesn’t seem to have helped us evolve away from our negative reactions, including grief, shame, inadequacy, indignation, and anger. So Hsu still wants to find out why some people withdraw, some get depressed, some turn to drugs and alcohol, and some lash out.
Everybody still struggles to decide how to respond to rejection. “I’m sure that people who’ve gotten through lots of rejection go, ‘Okay, it’s going to be fine,’ and in the back of your mind, you know that tomorrow you know you’re going to feel better. People who are depressed can’t step outside their current mood and know the future will be better, because they probably don’t have that sense of hope.” We all feel the pain — but we feel that pain differently, to greater or lesser extents.
“I’m sure that people who’ve gotten through lots of rejection go, ‘Okay, it’s going to be fine,’ and in the back of your mind, you know that tomorrow you know you’re going to feel better.
“There was one study that showed that even if you’re excluded by someone you despise — so the excluders were members of the KKK — that elicited negative emotions,” said Hsu. “If you’re rejected by someone you don’t like, who’s oppressive — it’s surprising, because you normally would not want any part of that group, so you shouldn’t feel bad. But you do feel bad because… exclusion hurts, no matter what the group is.”
Hsu’s clinical rejection lab and the Great American rejection lab mirror each other. We don’t need to visit Hsu’s lab to face rejections in relationships with friends, family, neighbors, and lovers. With teachers. Employers. Selection committees. Loan officers. Border guards. Judges. Presidents. Rejection is about whether or not we thrive, learn, and achieve: can we prevail through the rejections that affect how we survive within — or outside — a community? Hsu’s rejection lab is a microcosm of real-life rejection, raising questions that concern the realms of psychology and biology, but also law, governance, education, employment, and the arts. What we think we know about resilience to rejection also concerns the U.S. political discourses on opportunity, success, justice, inequality, belonging — and self-help.
Perhaps the American democratic experiment has been one hard sell on self-improvement, with so much of our politics and culture descended from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, which codified the ideal of the new republic’s self-made man: lifting himself up by his bootstraps, resilient, hard-working, principled, tough, failing, trying again, and winning success. From the very beginning, though, even if the idea of competition didn’t automatically divide the world into winners and losers, rejectors and the rejected, there was the question of who was allowed to compete at all. Franklin’s compatriot, Thomas Jefferson, who declared the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” rejected the claims to those rights for the more than 600 people he enslaved. Flash forward to 2002, when the Monticello Association, comprised of Jefferson’s white descendants, rejected membership privileges, including burial in the Monticello graveyard, to the descendants of Sally Hemings. As one of them, Shay Banks-Young, replied: “I felt so demeaned by the ugliness of this…. I want no part of their association. I have no interest in being buried in their cemetery.”
U.S. political mythology holds that people get stronger and more resilient through rejection and adversity. But the kind of resilience in the face of rejection that the Founding Fathers espoused is inextricably bound up with institutionalized forms of prejudice that equate the rejected with the lazy, unqualified, unresilient, unhealthy. Boot-strapping turns out to be a political discourse in which purely individual self-improvement, as a response to rejections that are all too often generated by systemically flawed, unjust institutions, is built into the rhetoric: try, try again. Learn more skills and apply next year. It’s not you, it’s me. Separate but equal. Get your own graveyard. Yet as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his bootstraps.”
Self-help guides, therapy, schooling, and all our cultural rules and norms determine whether our reactions to rejection are appropriate or excessive, reasonable or deranged. According to these standards, our ability to cope with rejection depends on maturity, resilience, and the hard work of self-improvement: we get over it, we shake it off, we cope, we move on, and, nevertheless, we persist. But what we call resilience comes at a huge material, financial, and psychological cost for those who, through no fault of their own, can rarely or never prevail against a system stacked against them.
Not all rejections are equal. Some of us are rejected from access to fundamental human rights; some of us are rejected by prom dates. Sometimes the rejected feel entitled to what they don’t deserve or have no right to take. The 1999 Columbine mass shooters were widely quoted, even in one psychological study, as saying, “Isn’t it fun to get the respect that we’re going to deserve”; they were held up as examples of social rejects whose feelings of exclusion led to violence. But as Eden Cheung said in a viral tweet after the shootings in Parkland, Florida; Benton, Kentucky; and Lexington Park, Maryland: “if bullying caused school shootings, you would see trans shooters, queer shooters, female shooters, POC shooters. bullying does not cause school shootings; entitlement does. and white boys are the most entitled demographic by far.” Rejection is said to be universal, but it isn’t. Neither are resilience, retaliation, and recovery.
Hsu and I also discussed the difficulty of framing “healthy” or “appropriate” responses to unjust, systemic rejections. They’re entirely contextual: nobody should have to “get over” a rejection like segregation! In such situations, an appropriate response might be: protest. A movement. Or waging a civil war. There are other ways to be resilient than to accommodate the system by changing ourselves to meet arbitrary, unfair standards. Therapeutic and pharmaceutical ways to bolster ourselves against rejection are not the same as changing a culture that uses rejection as a goad toward achievement or a justification for discrimination.
It’s the work of cultural history to operate as both laboratory and self-help manual, to figure out the rights and wrongs of rejection. Rejection constitutes a mental, emotional assessment of the self that looks out at the world and has to reckon, for good or for bad, with being found wanting. It’s also, often, the confrontation with impersonal — or all too personal — calculations that have no regard for your feelings. We might think of the experience of rejection as that of being caught up in two terrifying machines: the machine of own’s own body, brain waves, hormones, and intensely personal and predictable responses to rejection — and the external, annihilating machine of the body, institution, or system judging us. Our ability to control, or respond to, these machines is sometimes up to us, and sometimes not up to us at all: we locate ourselves in our own minds and bodies — but also in a history of justice, injustice, and self-esteem, intertwined in so many ways through our lives, whether in a lab, a dating app, or a civil rights movement.
This is a love-hate story.