The Very Real Sting of Rejection


After working on his book for years, John Kennedy Toole submitted his manuscript to several publishers. Initially, editor Robert Gottlieb wanted to publish it, but he soon lost interest. The rejection hurt so much that Toole refused to look at his manuscript and he quit writing. He eventually killed himself due in part to the pain he felt from the rejection. Eleven years later, his mother managed to publish the manuscript, A Confederacy of Dunces, which won a Pulitzer Prize. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms what anyone who has ever been rejected inherently knows—social rejection hurts as much as physical pain.

Psychologists Walter Mischel and Edward Smith from Columbia University, Ethan Kross and Marc Berman from the University of Michigan, and Tor Wager from the University of Colorado, Boulder conducted 40 fMRIs on subjects who had recently experienced an unwanted romantic break-up.

As the fMRI scanned the participants’ brains looking for areas of high activity, the subjects either looked at pictures of their ex-significant others and a picture of a friend (who was about the same age and same sex) or the researchers prodded their arms with warm or cool stimuli. Looking at the images of their exes caused the participants mental anguish as extreme as the pain felt from the hot and cold jabs.

The brain acted the same whether a person felt mental or physical pain—in both cases the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), the anterior insula, and segments of the thalamus activated. The dACC regulates cognition and motor control and neurologists suspect that it plays a role in decoding brain signals and dealing with rewards. The anterior insula influences self perception, motor control, and emotional responses, activation in this area might indicate that participants were aware of the pain they felt and tried to control physical responses like breathing or blood pressure (imagine trying to steady your nerves during a scary movie). And, the thalamus relays signals to most sensory systems (except the olfactory system).

“These results give new meaning to the idea that social rejection hurts,” said Kross.

“On the surface, spilling a hot cup of coffee on yourself and thinking about how rejected you feel when you look at the picture of a person that you recently experienced an unwanted break-up with may seem to elicit very different types of pain. But this research shows that they may be even more similar than initially thought.”