Editorial: DO NOT SNUB THIS!

December 21, 2003

Do you remember on the playground when the big kids were choosing up teams and they didn't pick you, over and over? Recall how you felt then, waiting and waiting uselessly, hopelessly hopeful? That invisible sense of exclusion, being snubbed on purpose? You couldn't let anyone see your feelings as you stood there, pretending not to care, in a dwindling crowd of leftover players. But still you felt the pain, right? An awful hollow ache, like a punch in the stomach. No, no, don't get all teary-eyed now. This is an editorial and there's no crying in editorials. Whining maybe. But no crying. C'mon, suck it up.

Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman have seen those sad feelings on a screen, welling up in the brains of people undergoing snubbing. In fact, as UCLA social psychologists, this pair has intentionally snubbed subjects to study how their brains reacted. They detected the blood flow increasing to the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain, the same area that registers physical pain and distress.

What these two team captains did was choose 13 UCLA students. Of course, now thousands of others will know they were snubbed. "It's easy to get subjects," Eisenberger said, "if you say they can see inside their own brain." The researchers had each subject lie down inside the tunnel of a magnetic resonance imaging machine. The students wore headphones and goggles enabling them to play a virtual game of catch with two people on the screen. Subjects thought the study concerned playing catch. Suddenly, however, in the game's last 90 seconds, the two virtual playmates stopped throwing the ball to the subjects for no apparent reason. No explanation. Just snubbed them. Totally cut them out. No matter what button was pushed, not one throw came their way. That's not fair! Right?

Instantly, more blood headed for that sensitive cortex. It turned red on the MRI screen, then redder. The longer and stronger they felt snubbed, the redder the area became until it turned bright yellow with so much anxious blood flow. Now, that's pain!

The results provide insights into how the human brain works. They raise intriguing questions about why some show less snubbing distress than others and what the long-term biological effect is of chronic physical and emotional pain. Is it sufficient to treat victims of broken bones medically but to tell the emotionally injured to simply get over it?

How yellow will UCLA researchers find the brains of cross-town football fans enduring the snubbing of USC by the Sugar Bowl selection committee? And what about the anterior cingulate cortexes of Eisenberger and Lieberman if everyone snubs this study?