Written by Jess Brink
When considering what humans need in order to thrive and survive, people usually think of food, water and shelter, but psychologists have found that there is something else that is vital to human life. The need to belong – to have a sense of connection and social acceptance - impacts multiple aspects of a person’s life. This need can affect one’s emotions, and not fitting in - social rejection - can have an array of negative cognitive and biological effects.
Can the need to be socially accepted change how we think?
The human need to belong can impact the ways in which we think. For example, one study by Knowles and Gardner (2008) showed that individuals who were led to believe that they would have a lonely future changed their thinking to focus on activities that may improve their chances of social success and acceptance. Another study completed by Knowles and Gardner (2008) showed that after an individual is asked to recall an unfortunate social event, they tend to focus on more group based words (i.e., we, us, etc.). In addition, the same participants tended to use groups to define themselves and described their specific social group as being better than other participants who were asked to recall social success or who were not asked to recall any socially based distresses did (Knowles & Gardner, 2008). These results show how social rejection can change a person’s thinking by leading them to think about what changes they need to make in order to fit in.
Although the previous examples may show that the need to belong drives thoughts and behavior in order to help us survive socially, the need to belong can also have a negative impact on other cognitive functions beyond our social cognition. For example, Baumeister and colleagues (2002) found that people who were made to believe that their future would prove socially unsuccessful scored lower on intelligence tests or when answering difficult questions. These participants also found it difficult to remember complicated passages, when compared to participants who were made to believe their future would be successful or who were not given feedback on future social success. This change in complex cognitive thinking may have been impacted by the participant’s change in focus to social belongingness, as demonstrated previously.
If the need to belong is truly a fundamental need, then shouldn’t there be a biological or physical aspect?
Research seems to agree that there are both biological and physical aspects in response to social rejections, but they have yet to agree on what exactly those are. Some research, such as the study conducted by DeWall and Baumeister in 2006, shows that social rejection or the fear of rejection in the future can lead to increased pain tolerance. However, a different study conducted by Eisenberger and colleagues (2006), found that individuals who were made to feel socially excluded did not report a decrease in or desensitization to pain. Even though the participants did not report physical changes in pain tolerance, they did show increased activity in two different areas in the brain that are used in response to pain (Eisenberger, Jarcho, Lieberman, & Naliboff, 2006). In addition, multiple studies have shown that cortisol, a hormone that is released in times of stress, is released in response to social alienation and threats to belonging. For example, a study done by Blakhart and colleagues (2007), where people were told that others had refused to work with them, found that this social alienation led to increased cortisol levels. Therefore, although research still needs to be done on what exactly social rejection does to the body, the current research does prove that there is an effect.
Does everyone respond to social rejection in the same way?
People do not always respond to social exclusion in similar ways. Social anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem have been linked to a greater sensitivity to rejection and greater wariness about forming new relationships due to these states being linked to heightened reactions to rejection and participants being timid in regard to approaching new people (Gere & MacDonald, 2010). This cautiousness is likely a protective behavior to avoid further rejection, but it can actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who are hyper vigilant for signs of rejection – or who may even have a bias for attending to cues that signal possible rejection – may find they elicit rejection from others (Dandeneau etal., 2008; Gere & MacDonald, 2010; Hale, VanderValk, Akse, & Meeus, 2008; Lemay & Clark, 2008; Maner, DeWall, Baumeister, & Schaller, 2007; Murray, Derrick, Leder, & Holmes, 2008).
What does this mean? What can you do?
Everyone experiences loneliness or social rejection at some point in their lives. The feelings that one experiences after such events are completely natural and felt by the majority of people. Social acceptance is something that all of us need. If you cannot find acceptance down one path, chances are you will be able to find it somewhere else. Join a club, a team, or an online forum, and talk to someone new. The worry about being accepted when meeting new people is temporary and will be replaced by the rewarding feeling of having close relationships. Your brain and body will thank you!
Baumeister, R. F., Twenge, J. M., & Nuss, C. K. (2002). Effects of social exclusion on cognitive
processes: Anticipated aloneness reduces intelligent thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 817-827.
Blackhart, G. C., Eckel, L. A., & Tice, D. M. (2007). Salivary cortisol in response to acute social rejection and acceptance by peers. Biological Psychology, 75, 267-276.
Dandeneau, S. D., Baldwin, M. W., Baccus, J. R., Sakellaropoulo, M., & Pruessner, J. C. (2008). Cutting stress off at the pass: Reducing vigilance and responsiveness to social threat by manipulating attention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 651-666.
Eisenberger, N. I., Jarcho, J. M., Lieberman, M. D., & Naliboff, B. D. (2006). An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection. Pain, 126, 132-138.
Gere, J., & MacDonald, G. (2010). An Update of the Empirical Case for the Need to Belong. Journal Of Individual Psychology, 66(1), 93-115.
Hale, W. W., Ill, Vander Valk, I., Akse, J., & Meeus, W. (2008). The interplay of early adolescents' depressive symptoms, aggression and perceived parental rejection: A four-year community study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 928-940
Knowles, M. L., & Gardner, W. L. (2008). Benefits of membership: The activation and amplification of group identities in response to social rejection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1200-1213.
Lemay, E. P., & Clark, M. S. (2008). "Walking on eggshells": How expressing relationship insecurities perpetuates them. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 420-441.
Maner, J. K., DeWall, C. N., Baumeister, R. F., & Schaller, M. (2007). Does social exclusion motivate interpersonal reconnection? Resolving the "porcupine problem." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 42-55.
Murray, S. L., Derrick, J. L., Leder, S., & Holmes, J. G. (2008). Balancing connectedness and self-protection goals in close relationships: A levels of processing perspective on risk regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94, 429-459.
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Jessica Utley
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor