It seems intuitive, right? Getting a rejection letter from a top college, dumped by the love of our life, or excluded from lunch with friends can make us feel pretty crummy. Rejection can cause us to re-evaluate ourselves and make us think, "Why wasn’t I good enough? What am I doing wrong?" According to the sociometer theory, being rejected by others decreases self-esteem.1 From this perspective, self-esteem represents an internal monitor of our acceptance level in our social world. When our acceptance is high, we feel pretty good about ourselves. But when we experience rejection, we are much more critical of ourselves and modify our behavior in an attempt to restore our sense of belonging. Thus, rejection’s effect on self-esteem is adaptive: it sparks self-reflection and improves our likelihood of gaining acceptance going forward.
But does rejection really lower our self-esteem? According to a recent meta-analysis (a method of combining results from many different studies) involving over 190 studies on rejection, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that rejection worsens our self-esteem.2 While some studies do show that rejection decreases self-esteem, many of the studies did not. Rather, the researchers concluded that acceptance can increase self-esteem, but rejection does not harm it.
Why have some studies found the effect while so many other studies have not? To answer this question, it’s important to look at the nature of most rejection research:
1) Typically researchers measure self-esteem directly after the rejection. But as the authors of the meta-analysis point out, people may engage in defensive strategies in the short term to protect their self-esteem, such as attributing the rejection to something outside of their control. No studies have looked at the effects of a singular rejection experience on self-esteem over time, so it’s possible that people reflect more critically on the rejection after getting some distance from it. In support if this, some studies have found a correlation between chronic rejection and low self-esteem over time. But these studies don’t tell us whether rejection is causing low self-esteem or if low self-esteem is causing rejection, so more research is needed.
2) Almost all rejection studies take place in an artificial setting: psychology laboratories! When a friend blows you off or a boyfriend dumps you, that can have a real impact on your life. When you’re told in a lab that no one chose to work with you on a task, it probably doesn’t affect your life all that much. Laboratories certainly have their advantages, but the effects of rejection on self-esteem are likely underestimated in lab studies due to their lack of ecological validity (or similarity to the real world). That is why it is so important to study rejection outside of the laboratory, in real and meaningful settings, if we really want to get at its emotional consequences.
One of the challenges in conducting experimental research on rejection in a real-life setting is that we do not know when rejection is going to occur. To circumvent this issue, my colleagues and I are currently crowdfunding a study that uses the sorority recruitment process (an event where we know rejection occurs) as a means of studying rejection-related questions in a real and meaningful context. By using this real life process we will be able to assess the more long-term effects of rejection on well-being by measuring well-being three months after the recruitment process ends. Are you thinking about rushing? Please consider supporting this important research to uncover the emotional and cognitive consequences of interpersonal rejection—you can find out more information about the project here.
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1Leary, M. R., Tambor, E. S., Terdal, S. K., & Downs, D. L. (1995). Self-esteem as an interpersonal monitor: The sociometer hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 518-530.
2Blackhart, G. C., Nelson, B. C., Knowles, M. L. & Baumeister, R. F. (2009). Rejection elicits emotional reactions but neither causes immediate distress nor lowers self-esteem: A meta-analytic review of 192 Studies on Social Exclusion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13, 269-309.
Julie Martin - Graduate Student, Social Psychology, Duke University
B.A., Lafayette College
Dr. Laura Smart Richman - Assistant Professor of Psychology, Duke University
Ph.D., University of Virginia
Laura’s research interests include the influence of psychosocial factors on health outcomes and health behaviors, with particular attention to identity, emotion, and perceived discrimination. She is particularly interested in how the psychological and physical consequences of perceived discrimination may be moderated by how strongly one identifies with the group that is the target of discrimination. Other interests include the biological mechanisms by which emotion and emotion regulation influence health.