Your wife left you.
That’s an extreme example of rejection. But think back to a breakup, an unrequited job application or maybe a time that you went to the park, saw some kids tossing a Frisbee and joined them for a few throws only to watch them cut you out of the game without saying a word. One way or another, you’ve been passed over, dumped, ignored or rejected.
And, when faced with the possibility of a rejection, people tend to anticipate it before it even happens.
This is according to a recently published University of Nebraska-Lincoln study where researchers measured spiking brain activity in 20 students who became excluded from a virtual game of catch based on that aforementioned Frisbee debacle.
It’s believed to be a first-of-its kind study, but drew results from a tried-and-true lab game, according to John Kiat, a doctoral candidate in UNL’s psychology department who authored the paper with associate sociology professors Bridget Goosby and Jacoby Cheadle.
The game was first used in 2000 by a social researcher named Kipling Williams after he found himself involved in an impromptu game of Frisbee, only to be dumped.
“He was devastated,” Kiat said. "He was like, ‘Why do I feel so bad about this?’”
Such social rejection is tough to replicate in a lab setting, Kiat said, because study participants don’t expect to be buddies with a researcher in a place that often feels like a doctor’s waiting room. If you ostracize them, they’ll just check their phones.
Williams wanted to study the damaging effects of social exclusion — many researchers do, Kiat said — so he created a program based on how lousy being Frisbee-dumped felt.
It’s called Cyberball, and for researchers, it is a pivotal program that allows them to see how people handle rejection.
A game tends to go like this: A study participant joins in a ball-tossing computer game where she plays catch with two virtual players. After a round of seemingly regular catch, the interaction between the virtual players and the study participant changes. The computer players hold the ball longer, throw to one another, and eventually leave out the one person playing. That person starts to get all the feels.
Researchers have focused many studies on the aftermath of the rejection, which has shown all kinds of negative impacts — from higher stress levels to anger to lessened willpower when presented with a plate of cookies.
In one study, African-American participants reported feeling a sense of rejection even after being told the virtual ball-throwers were being operated by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Everybody in the past had used Cyberball to look at the experience of social rejection,” Kiat said. “OK, so you get socially rejected — how’s your brain react? How’s your body react? How do you psychologically rate all your emotions? But no one had ever used Cyberball to look at what we call hypervigilance.”
Bringing up the breakup example, Kiat said that, while being hypervigilant might ease the pain in the short-term, it can lead to troubles down the road.
“Your girlfriend breaks up with you and that’s bad, that hurts,” he said. “In that moment, your body goes through all these experiences. Negative stress hormones, your brain feels bad. Eventually you recover, and some people recover faster than others.
"But for some people, that doesn’t end there. They have one bad breakup, and for the rest of their life, every relationship is messed up. They meet a person and go: ‘OK, when is this going to end? When are you going to reject me? When are you going to hurt me?’ And that makes them hostile in that relationship.”
To measure hypervigilance in the UNL study, researchers recorded electrical brain activity from participants at the school’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior. Each participant took a survey before playing Cyberball, in which they answered questions that Kiat said helped show whether they believed they dwelled on rejections or rolled with the punches. Then they donned electrode nets and played Cyberball, each being involved for 40 throws before the game begins to change, ending with 24 throws that don’t involve the human subject at all.
And then, whether participants dwelled on rejections or took them comparatively in stride, their brain activity showed they braced for something that was amiss.
“It actually happens very quickly,” Kiat said. Usually after three throws, when they’re not passing to you, you get this spike in attention. You’re like, ‘Hmm, something’s wrong.’”
Kiat said that the brain activity of those who tended to dwell on rejection showed stronger attentional spikes than those who didn’t dwell on things, but they all showed a spike.
“We got exactly what we wanted,” Kiat said of the study, published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology. “Results are clean. Look at those pretty pictures.”
He was pointing at an image of a participant whose brain bloomed with red and orange colors, signaling high alert during a period of exclusion experienced during Cyberball. If people know that this pre-rejection attention spike is happening, Kiat said, there might be ways for them to reason with it and help reduce it. Those are answers that could come with follow-up research.