Rejection is Like Pain to the Brain

October 10, 2003

Those hurt feelings when you're the last one picked for a team may register in the brain just like a scraped knee or a kicked shin, according to new research that finds that the brain responds to social rejection in the same way it responds to physical pain. The findings suggest that our need for inclusion is rooted in our aversion to pain.

I just want to belong! The anterior cingulate cortex lights up in response to a snub.

Anyone who's been rejected knows it can hurt. Social psychologist Naomi Eisenberger of the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues wondered if the metaphor of emotional pain had corporeal underpinnings.

To investigate the brain's response to rejection, the researchers stuffed volunteers (one at a time) into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and monitored their brain activity. The volunteers wore goggles that allowed them to play Cyberball, a game in which three "players" pass an e-ball around on the screen. The other two players--which the subjects thought were other people--were being controlled by computer, which the researchers programmed to exclude the fMRI-bound volunteer from the game after several passes. After playing along and then being ignored, the players were interviewed by researchers about how they felt. Some players came out saying, "Did you see what those people did to me?" while others suspected the researchers were up to something.

When the subjects were left out of the game, a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) that responds to pain lit up according to how strongly the players reported feeling the rejection, the team reports in the 10 October issue of Science. The researchers found that in some skeptics, another part of the brain that copes and tries to solve problems was activated, and it apparently quashed some of the signal from the ACC. "The study shows how deeply rooted our need for connectedness is," says Eisenberger.

Calling the study "very provocative and very interesting," social psychologist Susan Fiske of Princeton University in New Jersey says, "It's fabulous that they brought social interactions into the [fMRI] magnet," making it the first study to do so. She says that the ACC responds to conflicting information as well as pain, but the authors did a good job of relating the ACC activity to people's distress at being left out.