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…