In Brief

Social rejection can hurt: No one likes to be passed over for a sports team or excluded from a party. Now, a study in this month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 88, No. 4) suggests such rejection also dampens people's willingness to self-regulate their actions.

In the study's first experiment, 36 undergraduate participants completed a personality questionnaire. Then, researcher Roy Baumeister, PhD, of Florida State University, and his colleagues told a third of the students--selected at random--that their scores indicated that they would likely end up alone in life (socially rejected). Another third were told that they would have rewarding relationships throughout life. In a control condition that was negative but not based on social rejection, the final third were told that they would be accident-prone as they got older, and that this would negatively affect their life.

Then, to measure self-regulation, the researchers said they'd give each participant a nickel for every ounce they could drink of a healthy but bad-tasting beverage flavored with vinegar. People who can self-regulate well are more likely to perform such unpleasant tasks for future rewards, the researchers theorized.

As it turned out, people who were told they'd be alone in life were less able to regulate their actions--they drank 2.23 ounces on average less than those who anticipated future social acceptance, and 2.15 ounces less than those who were told they'd be accident-prone.

A second experiment in the study found similar results using different measures of self-regulation and social rejection. In it, 38 unacquainted undergraduate participants arrived in the lab in groups of four to six. The participants spent 20 minutes getting to know each other, and then were asked to write down the names of two people they'd met whom they'd like to work with in the future. Then, half of the participants--selected at random--were told that no one had chosen to work with them, while half were told that everyone wanted to work with them.

Finally, to test the participants' ability to self-regulate, the researchers left each participant alone in a room with a bowl of 35 minicookies and asked them to rate the cookies for taste and texture. The participants who thought they had been rejected ate nearly twice as many cookies as those who thought they were accepted by their peers.

These findings make sense, the researchers say, because regulating our behavior is what allows us to fit into society and be accepted in the first place. People who are rejected may feel that their self-regulation efforts were for naught and be less likely to self-regulate in the future. In fact, a follow-up experiment in the study suggests that rejected people are merely unwilling, not unable, to self-regulate.

"Self-regulation allows us to be good citizens and follow social norms, and it also lets us plan for the future and be rational," says lead researcher Baumeister. "Social rejection apparently reduces people's desire to do both."