October 14, 2003
Brain Scans Show Rejection Causes Pain Similar To Physical Pain

Researchers at UCLA have demonstrated with Functional MRI (fMRI) scans that the pain of rejection looks similar in a brain scan to the neuronal activation pattern seen with physical pain.

In the first of three rounds, experimenters instructed UCLA undergraduates just to watch the two other players because "technical difficulties" prevented them from participating. In the second round, the students were included in the ball-tossing game, but they were excluded from the last three-quarters of the third round by the other players. While the undergraduates later reported feeling excluded in the third round, fMRI scans revealed elevated activity during both the first and third rounds in the anterior cingulate. Located in the center of the brain, the cingulate has been implicated in generating the adverse experience of physical pain.

"Rationally we can say being excluded doesn't matter, but rejection of any form still appears to register automatically in the brain, and the mechanism appears to be similar to the experience of physical pain," Lieberman said.

When the undergraduates were conscious of being snubbed, cingulate activity directly responded to the amount of distress that they later reported feeling at being excluded.

The researchers also detected elevated levels of activity in another portion of the brain the right ventral prefrontal cortex but only during the game's third round. Located behind the forehead and eyes, the prefrontal cortex is associated with thinking about emotions and with self-control.

"The folks who had the most activity in the prefrontal cortex had the least amount of activity in the cingulate, making us think that one area is inhibiting one or the other," Lieberman said.

The psychologists theorize that the pain of being rejected may have evolved because of the importance of social bonds for the survival of most mammals.

"Going back 50,000 years, social distance from a group could lead to death and it still does for most infant mammals," Lieberman said. "We may have evolved a sensitivity to anything that would indicate that we're being excluded. This automatic alarm may be a signal for us to reestablish social bonds before harm befalls us."

"These findings show how deeply rooted our need is for social connection," Eisenberger said. "There's something about exclusion from others that is perceived as being as harmful to our survival as something that can physically hurt us, and our body automatically knows this."

There are interesting legal ramifications to this report. As the cost of fMRI and other objective measures of pain become more advanced do not be surprised if fMRI and other tests are used in legal cases to buttress claims of pain and suffering to win legal awards. This will be seen as unfair to those with higher pain thresholds and less sensitivity to rejection and to treatment that others might perceive as unfair and painful. Is it fair for people who suffer differing degrees of emotional pain from the same experience to receive different sized legal settlements because they are not equally prone to feeling emotional pain in response to traumatic experiences?

There is another ramification to this report: humans are wired to not want to be rejected by other humans. As the authors state, this is probably a consequence of human evolution. Well, suppose it becomes possible for people to modify their minds to reduce their need for acceptance by others. This would have all sorts of consequences for behavior. A great many human activities are performed (for both good and ill) in order to win acceptance from others. What would be the net effect of a reduced desire to be accepted? My guess is that among many other effects it would tend to reduce altruistic behavior and would reduce the incentive to avoid doing things that are inconsiderate of others.

The ability to edit memories, change one's personality, change very basic desires, and to change what causes pain or pleasure could provide us with many benefits. But it could also create changes in human nature that undermine civilization. When it becomes possible to reduce one's feeling of empathy or to stop oneself from feeling guilty over acts committed against others some malevolent and foolish people will choose to do so. This could be done out of a motive to reduce suffering. Some who feel very rejected and in pain from rejection will decide to eliminate the pain response that occurs when one is rejected. Imagine the consequences if more people became indifferent to the approval of others.

The ability to do brain reprogramming is going to force the issue of what constitutes a rights-possessing being. Ayn Rand's claim that rights are a product of our ability to think rationally is just not an adequate explanation. It is part of the explanation but only a part. What we feel pain or pleasure over in dealing with others plays a large role in causing us to treat others fairly or unfairly. It seems inevitable that our minds will become much more mutable in the future. Once that happens we will have to face the question of how to decide whether each person who opts to have mind modifications done still possesses the minimum set of qualities that are necessary for a human to possess to safely live in a society, respect the rights of others, and carry out responsibilities that are expected of anyone who is a member of that society.

This is far from the only report that suggests there are qualities of the human brain that help support the functioning of humans in societies. See, for example my previous post on altruistic punishment for another example. Also, see the post Emotions Overrule Logic To Cause Us To Punish.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 October 14 02:55 AM  Biological Mind

Phil Bowermaster said at October 14, 2003 8:23 AM:


Congrats on yet another excellent essay.

I wonder whether the moral sense that drives altruism and the fear of rejection might originate in different places? To me, there is a rational component to moral action. The Golden Rule is almost a mathematical proposition -- I expect kindness from others because I extend kindness towards them. I *do* fear the rejection of my family and friends if I commit some egregious crime, but that isn't the primary thing stopping me from doing it. I don't seek to commit such acts covertly, for example. Even if my hard-wired inclinations against doing such things were to evaporate, I think I would still reject them on rational grounds. (Of course, it's hard to be sure of that. A lot of what I think of as rational behavior might just be hard wiring.)

In my own case, the fear of rejection seems far more likely to inhibit productive rather than destructive behaviors. I think that shyness must be one of the most common defensive postures taken against the fear of rejection. Shyness prevents people from forming friendships or even having pleasant, normal social interactions with casual acquaintences. In the business world, it makes people inneffective at selling themselves or their ideas and products.

If I could take a pill that would cure shyness, I would definitely do it.

Speaking of opportunities for rejection, I wonder if you would consider talking about these issues in a Speaking of the Future interview over on my site?

Patrick said at October 14, 2003 9:04 PM:

So I can now PROVE that I suffered physical pain because Cameron Diaz wouldn't go out with me? Interesting.... to both me and my lawyer. :)

And I'll agree with Phil. In a lot of ways fear of rejection and need for acceptance produce negative effects. The ability to block it could cause big improvements as well and dangers.

Ben said at October 16, 2003 10:38 AM:

I tracked down the original paper, and sadly, it isn't very good. It's nice at being big and headline-grabbing, but the science itself is mediocre. I discussed the paper at a lab meeting, for a Neuroscience lab at an Ivy League university. While I don't do fMRI myself, everyone else in my lab does, and these statements are based on the discussion we had over it yesterday. (As to my own qualifications, I'm a graduate student, split working between two labs, fMRI and neuroprosthetics.)

First, a LOT of things activate the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), not just pain; one recent theory is that fMRI activation there may be tied to blood pressure, though I don't know the direction of causation. (I can't name those studies, but the PI mentioned them.)

Second, their controls were totally insufficient. The short explanation is that they didn't get distress reports after the first round, so they can't really isolate the effects of the two brain regions (and the graphics) on distress reports. They claim that the right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC) modulated the rejection-based distress, but without testing the distress levels in the first round (when there was no RVPFC activation, only ACC), they cannot make -or, perhaps, should not be- making any claims about the role of brain regions in the distress.

Basically, it's not convincing science- the study didn't really show that social rejection used the same brain mechanisms as physical pain; it did show some common systems, but nothing exclusive. While the popular-press articles only vaguely mention (paragraph 5) the study's statement about the role of the brain regions involved, that conclusion is even less well-founded than the first.

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Fear of Rejection

bg said at February 14, 2008 12:16 AM:

The idea of needing approval of others is not the same thing as being inconsiderate of others. Why use these phrases interchangeably?

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