Rejection is a part of life, but it’s a part of life that isn’t particularly fun. Because we’re social animals, we respond to rejection in a predictable way: we feel bad.
But it turns out we can respond to rejection in unpredictable ways too. Researchers study reactions to rejection by getting together a bunch of people and then, well, rejecting some of them. (Don’t worry, it’s all in the name of science!)
Looking at the differences between the rejects and non-rejects, it’s then possible to put together a better picture of how social exclusion affects people. In these studies, some of the unexpected ways people respond to rejection are:
1. Developing higher self-esteem
It wouldn’t be so far out to hazard an educated guess that rejection might lower people’s self-esteem. But in some cases, it looks like the opposite is true.
A 2015 study found that for some women, being rejected increases their appearance self-esteem. Only a specific group of women reacted to rejection with increased appearance self-esteem, though: women whose body weight is an important part of their self-worth.
The authors of the study suggest that these results might generalize in that people tend to compensate for rejection with increases in self-esteem in areas that are important to them. More studies need to be done to see if this holds true for areas other than appearance and body weight, however.
2. Being creative
Higher self-esteem isn’t the only advantage rejection can bring. A 2013 experiment demonstrated that rejection can actually make people more creative.
Once again, though, this isn’t universally true. In particular, it applies only to people with an independent self-concept – that is, people who define themselves by their personal goals and accomplishments more than their relationships.
For these individuals, it appears being rejection tends to make them see themselves as more different, which in turn enhances creativity.
3. Becoming less confident … or more confident
Logically, it’s not a stretch to say that social exclusion might make people less confident. But the research suggests that it depends on the person.
When their voices are analyzed for properties suggesting confidence, more socially anxious people do indeed come across as less confident after being rejected. On the other hand, less socially anxious people actually tend to come across as more confident.
4. Turning to religion
People search or spiritual answers in times of loss, hardship and … social rejection, apparently.
A set of studies published in 2010 found that rejection increases people’s levels of religious affiliation and intentions to engage in religious behaviors.
The findings also suggested the possibility that religion can help offset the stress of social rejection: people who were first primed to think about religion were less likely to react aggressively when they were rejected.
Rejection tends to provoke complex responses in people. It has some predictable negative effects, but also some positive effects to counteract the negative.
Overall, the science supports the idea that rejection isn’t all bad. More important than avoiding rejection is figuring out how to bring out the constructive ways of responding to rejection over the destructive. What exactly those constructive responses look like varies person to person, but the research has raised some possibilities you can use to get started: self-esteem, confidence, creativity and spirituality.
Image: FreeImages.com/Michael LeVan