Research That Changed Research: Does Rejection Hurt?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

We learn from a young age that the phrase above is not completely true. Words do hurt, especially when others are teasing and calling you names. Perhaps, it is not what people say that really hurts you, but the feeling of being socially excluded. But really, social pain and physical pain are two entirely different experiences, right? Actually, the two are more closely related than you think. An fMRI study of social exclusion showed that regions of the brain typically associated with physical pain distress also play a role in the emotions associated with social rejection.

Dr. Naomi Eisenberger and her colleagues used a computerized ball-tossing game, called “Cyberball,” to stimulate the feeling of social exclusion and used functional neuroimaging to capture the brain regions involved. While undergoing fMRI, research participants were to play Cyberball, the virtual game of catch, with two other “participants,” actually simulations from the computer program. The first game allowed the participant a fair amount of ball exchanges with the computers, but the second game completely excluded the participant from the game. The passage below is from the original article:

“In summary, a pattern of activations very similar to those found in studies of physical pain emerged during social exclusion, providing evidence that the experience and regulation of social and physical pain share a common neuroanatomical basis. Activity in dorsal ACC, previously linked to the experience of pain distress, was associated with increased distress after social exclusion. Furthermore, activity in RVPFC, previously linked to the regulation of pain distress, was associated with diminished distress after social exclusion.”

Eisenberger’s social exclusion study taught us that social exclusion hurts, but it also helped us find ways to relieve social pain. If you are rejected by your peers, it could be a sign for you to change your ways or seek positive connection with friends and family. What other ways might help relieve social pain? Positive social interactions, healthy foods, and exercise! And this is where DiSH Lab comes in!