What's New in Health Care: Rejection Hurts
October 13, 2003
If you never experienced the rejection of being picked last for a
sports team, chances are you've experienced the pain of a broken heart
or being turned down for a date. Whatever the social snub, researchers
at the University of California at Los Angeles say the pain of denial
is not just in our heads.
According to a report published in this month's Science, the
brain seems to respond to the pain of hurt feelings in the same way
as physical pain. To study this phenomenon, investigators recruited
13 UCLA students to play a computer-based game of catch with two other
computer figures. Students' brain activities were monitored using functional
magnetic resonance imaging.
Though the figures were computer-generated, students believed the figures
were linked to other student players not in the room. During the first
round of Cyberball, students were limited to only watching the game.
During round two, their playmates began tossing them the ball. After
40 throws, however, the other players began ignoring the student with
During the rounds when students did not participate in the game, fMRI
scans showed high activity in the part of the brain called the anterior
cingulate cortex. Prior research links this region to the processing
of physical pain and pain's negative feeling. Also, students who reported
feeling the most distress from being ignored showed the greatest activity
in this region.
Investigators think the pain of being rejected may have developed from
the importance of social bonds for survival in mammals. "Going
back 50,000 years, social distance from a group could lead to death,
and it still does for most infant mammals," says Matthew D. Lieberman,
Ph.D., co-author of the study. "We may have evolved a sensitivity
to anything that would indicate that we're being excluded. This automatic
alarm may be a signal for us to re-establish social bonds before harm
They note although the feelings of rejection and pain involve similar
processes, there are still differences. However these similarities help
to explain why "hurt feelings" of social exclusion and lost
love really do hurt.
Source: Science, 2003;302:290-292
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