FRIDAY, Sept. 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- When people feel rejected, they don't just get mad -- they get even.
New research has found that college students who believed they were rejected by their peers showed a greater range of antisocial behaviors, including increased aggression, less attempts to meet new people and less willingness to cooperate.
"Being rejected is like getting a blow to the head. It keeps you from thinking clearly and makes you act in ways you usually would not behave. You lose self control and act impulsively," says lead study author Jean Twenge, an assistant professor of psychology at San Diego State University.
Twenge undertook the research after noticing that youths involved in school shootings often were described as outcasts. She says, "The question was: 'Were they aggressive, so their peers rejected them, or were they rejected and they responded with aggression?' In the lab, we found when people were rejected they became more aggressive."
To test the rejection effect, Twenge and her colleagues had groups of college students chat with each other for 10 to 15 minutes, ostensibly to get to know each other. Students then were asked with whom they wanted to collaborate on a project.
Some participants were told no one wanted to collaborate with them.
The students then played a computer game. They believed they were playing against someone they had not met before. (In fact, they were playing against the computer).
The winner of the game was told to blast the loser with an unpleasant noise. The winner could decide the duration and intensity of the noise.
Rejected students chose a higher intensity and longer duration of noise against their opponents than accepted students. On a scale of one to 10 (with 10 being the loudest), rejected group members averaged an intensity of 5.1 compared with 3.7 by accepted students.
Researchers then repeated the experiment, but this time, every student was insulted by one of the researchers. Still, students rejected earlier set the intensity of the blasts much higher (6.6) than students who had perceived themselves as accepted (3.5).
"The logical thinking is that if you are rejected, the thing to do is to be nicer, but the subjects aren't," Twenge says.
In a third experiment, researchers gave a new group of students personality tests and had them write an essay about their views on a current political topic. The students believed their personality tests and essays were evaluated and a researcher had reached one of three predictions about their lives: they would have good fortune and many friends; they would be beset by misfortune but still have many friends and close relationships, or they would end up alone without close relationships or friends.
Later, the students were asked to evaluate the job performance of the researcher who delivered the predictions. The students were told their evaluation would be used to determine if the researcher was hired for a job.
Those told they had a bright future and those told they would have problems but would remain socially-connected evaluated the researcher either positively or neutrally. However, the students told they would end up alone gave highly negative job reviews to the researcher.
"A negative job evaluation isn't physically aggressive, but it is a way of hurting someone. The results suggest that social exclusion led to a marked increase in aggression toward the issuer of an insult," Twenge says.
Still, the rejected students did not report they were sad, angry or anxious. "The effect of rejection and social exclusion appeared to bypass mood and go straight to producing antisocial behavior," Twenge says.
After the experiments, the students were debriefed. Researchers explained that, in fact, they had not been rejected. Researchers had made it all up for the sake of the experiment.
Ronald P. Rohner, a professor emeritus of psychology at University of Connecticut, says the effect of rejection, especially on children, is profound.
"There is simply overwhelming evidence that the perception of being rejected by parents is associated with hostility and aggression, and people's childhoods can bully them throughout the rest of the lives," says Rohner, director of the university's Center for the Study of Parental Acceptance and Rejection.
Less is known about the effect of peer rejection, he says. However, previous research has shown there has to be a strong emotional connection between the rejected and the rejecter for rejection to have a long-lasting impact.