Notes on rejection sensitivity

I learned about rejection sensitivity in 2012. It seems a useful and under-appreciated concept. Here are notes collected from my brief look into it.

The Wikipedia article on social rejection is fascinating, especially the part on rejection sensitivity at the end. Here's an excerpt of the interesting parts, and I've highlighted the especially interesting parts:

Rejection in childhood

Bierman states that well-liked children show social savvy and know when and how to join play groups. Children who are at risk for rejection are more likely to barge in disruptively, or hang back without joining at all. Aggressive children who are athletic or have good social skills are likely to be accepted by peers, and they may become ringleaders in the harassment of less skilled children. Minority children, children with disabilities, or children who have unusual characteristics or behavior may face greater risks of rejection. Depending on the norms of the peer group, sometimes even minor differences among children lead to rejection or neglect. Children who are less outgoing or simply prefer solitary play are less likely to be rejected than children who are socially inhibited and show signs of insecurity or anxiety.[8]
There are programs available for helping children who suffer from social rejection. One large scale review of 79 controlled studies found that social skills training is very effective (r = .40 effect size), with a 70% success rate, compared to 30% success in control groups. There was a decline in effectiveness over time, however, with follow-up studies showing a somewhat smaller effect size (r = .35).[13]

[Michael: That line is exciting - I suspect there might be significant effects on happiness and productivity if social skills were taught in some kind of structured way. But it's actually somewhat less exciting than it looks. The abstract of the study at the citation says: "A meta-analytic review was conducted of 79 controlled studies of children's social skills training. The overall short-term effectiveness of social skills training was seen as moderate."

Still, moderate effectiveness sounds good.]

Rejection in the laboratory

Laboratory research has found that even short-term rejection from strangers can have powerful (if temporary) effects on an individual. In several social psychology experiments, people chosen at random to receive messages of social exclusion become more aggressive, more willing to cheat, less willing to help others, and more likely to pursue short-term over long-term goals. Rejection appears to lead very rapidly to self-defeating and antisocial behavior.[14]


A study at Miami University indicated that individuals who recently experienced social rejection were better than both accepted and control participants in their ability to discriminate between real and fake smiles. Though both accepted and control participants were better than chance (they did not differ from each other), rejected participants were much better at this task, nearing 80% accuracy.[18] This study is noteworthy in that it is one of the few cases of a positive or adaptive consequence of social rejection.

Ball Toss/ Cyberball Experiments

A common experimental technique is the "ball toss" paradigm, which was developed by Kip Williams and his colleagues at Purdue University.[19] This procedure involves a group of three people tossing a ball back and forth. Unbeknownst to the actual participant, two members of the group are working for the experimenter and following a pre-arranged script. In a typical experiment, half of the subjects will be excluded from the activity after a few tosses and never get the ball again. Only a few minutes of this treatment are sufficient to produce negative emotions in the target, including anger and sadness. This effect occurs regardless of self-esteem and other personality differences.

Gender differences have been found in these experiments. In one study, women showed greater nonverbal engagement whereas men disengaged faster and showed face-saving techniques, such as pretending to be uninterested. The researchers concluded that women seek to regain a sense of belonging whereas men are more interested in regaining self-esteem.[20]

A computerized version of the task known as "cyberball" has also been developed and leads to similar results.[21] Cyberball is a virtual ball toss game where the participant is led to believe they are playing with two other participants sitting at computers elsewhere who can toss the ball to either player. The participant is included in the game for the first few minutes, but then excluded by the other players for the remaining three minutes. This simple and short time period of ostracism has been found to produce significant increases to self-reported levels of anger and sadness, as well as lowering levels of the four needs. These effects have been found even when the participant is ostracised by out-group members,[22][23] when the out-group member is a despised person such as someone in the Ku Klux Klan[24] when they know the source of the ostracism is just a computer,[25] and even when being ostracised means they will be financially rewarded and being included would incur a financial cost.[26]

Surprisingly, people feel rejected even when they know they are only playing against the computer. A recent set of experiments using cyberball demonstrated that rejection impairs will power or self-regulation. Specifically, people who are rejected are more likely to eat cookies and less likely to drink an unpleasant tasting beverage that they are told is good for them. These experiments also showed that the negative effects of rejection last longer in individuals who are high in social anxiety.[27]


Rejection sensitivity

Karen Horney was the first theorist to discuss the phenomenon of rejection sensitivity.[34] She suggested that it is a component of theneurotic personality, and that it is a tendency to feel deep anxiety and humiliation at the slightest rebuff. Simply being made to wait, for example, could be viewed as a rejection and met with extreme anger and hostility.[35]

An early questionnaire measure of rejection sensitivity was developed by Albert Mehrabian.[36] Mehrabian suggested that sensitive individuals are reluctant to express opinions, tend to avoid arguments or controversial discussions, are reluctant to make requests or impose on others, are easily hurt by negative feedback from others, and tend to rely too much on familiar others and situations so as to avoid rejection.

More recently, Geraldine Downey and her colleagues at Columbia University refined the concept of rejection sensitivity and described it as the tendency to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and overreact to social rejection.[37] Downey has demonstrated in the laboratory that, given a high level of rejection sensitivity, an ambiguous social interaction can be perceived as rejection. (According to a 2008 article in Psychiatry Research, even normal people have a tendency to see neutral faces as rejecting.) This can then lead to defensiveness and self-fulfilling prophecies that undermine social relationships.

Individual differences in rejection sensitivity are believed to be the result of previous rejection experiences, particularly childhood experiences with parents and peers. Attachment theory suggests that rejection from parents could lead to rejection sensitivity. Additionally, both retrospective and longitudinal research has found that peer rejection in children is associated with increased rejection sensitivity.[38][39]Teasing and other forms of bullying appear to be especially likely to cause later difficulties.

Because of the association between rejection sensitivity and neuroticism, there is a likely genetic predisposition that makes people more vulnerable to rejection experiences and more likely to develop rejection sensitivity.

Gender difference in rejection sensitivity behavior

This 1996 paper, Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate relationships, has plenty of interesting results. One interesting thing is that genders behave differently if they're rejection-sensitive. Rejection-sensitive men are jealous; rejection-sensitive women are hostile and unsupportive:

Rejection-sensitive men were reported by their partners to show more jealousy (r = .22, p < .05). Rejection-sensitive women were reported by their partners to be more hostile (r = .26, p < .05) and more emotionally unsupportive (r = .3 l, p < .05 ). For women, the correlation between rejection sensitivity and jealousy was nonsignificant. For men, the correlations between rejection sensitivity and both hostility and emotional support were nonsignificant. None of these results changed appreciably when we recomputed the correlations while controlling for the partners' own levels of rejection sensitivity. 

They're studying the effect of rejection sensitivity on relationship satisfaction, so they do regressions to separate the effects of the behaviors (jealousy, hostility, unsupportiveness) from the rejection sensitivity itself. They find that "jealous behavior accounts for 29% of the effect of men's rejection sensitivity on their female partners' relationship dissatisfaction" and "hostility and lack of support account for 41% of the effect of women's rejection sensitivity on their male partners' relationship dissatisfaction".

I'm somewhat distrustful of taking strong conclusions from single studies like these.

Rejection-sensitive people interpret ambiguous situations negatively

This paper describes an experiment showing that rejection-sensitive people are more likely to interpret an ambiguous situation negatively. Participants are invited to a two-part experiment ostensibly about how people form initial impressions of others. They spend time with a confederate, then they're separated, and then:
  • In the control group, they're told there's not enough time for the second part
  • In the experimental group, they're told the confederate doesn't want to do the second part
Participants had completed a Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire (the score was blind to the experimenter and confederate).

Following the presentation of experimentally manipulated ambiguous rejection feedback after interaction with a confederate, high rejection-sensitive people reported greater feelings of rejection than low rejection-sensitive people. This effect was limited to feelings of rejection, rather than reflecting greater emotional distress in general, and was behaviorally manifest to the experimenter.
Qualitative data from the debriefings further support this conclusion. Rejection-sensitive people were likely to ruminate over what they had done to cause the confederate to reject them; for example, some of their comments were "I felt so badly. I wondered what I had done wrong" and "I was worried that I had bored him?' People who were low in rejection sensitivity were not concerned with understanding why the confederate did not return. They were also less likely to perceive the confederate's behavior as a rejection, attributing it instead to nonpersonal causes, as in the comment "I thought maybe she was in a rush."