Conference Keynote Speaker - Geraldine Downey
Pro and anti-social responses to rejection
A long-held assumption in society is that rejection is a way of eliciting socially desirable behavior in others. Because people need to belong, depriving them of social connection should prompt prosocial behavior, i.e., behavior intended to benefit others, in an effort to reconnect. A goal of our research is to reconcile this assumption with an apparently contradictory assumption, that rejection and social exclusion elicit hostility and decrease prosocial behavior toward its source. One reason to study the connection between rejection and both hostility and prosocial behavior is to understand relationships, especially apparently chaotic relationships with a lot of ups and downs. Those with whom people have the closest ties have the power to inflict the most painful rejection and response to a rejection from them can involve getting hostile or being extra nice in an effort to win the affection or both. When and why do people behave in different ways to rejection? Motivated by these questions, my students and I undertook a program of research to explore the connection between rejection and both prosocial and hostile behavior.
Under what circumstances does rejection trigger prosocial behavior rather than hostility to a rejection source? To answer this question, Rainer Romero Canyas and I (1) began with a review of the classic literature on conformity and ingratiation. This literature suggested that, if people got an opportunity to impress their rejecters, prosocial behavior is likely after particularly threatening rejection experiences. The literature revealed three sources of threat: the normative centrality of the rejection context to one’s self-definition (e.g., threats to men’s masculinity), the harshness of the rejection, and general insecurity about acceptance. The recent studies of the rejection – hostility link did not provide opportunities to engage in prosocial behavior toward the rejection source after the rejection. The very recent studies on the rejection - prosocial behavior link focused on prosocial behavior toward someone new, assuming that people will not seek to reconnect to those who reject them.
Guided by the literature, we expected that the characteristic rejection-hostility pattern would emerge when a rejection seemed irrevocable and no opportunity was provided for gaining acceptance. However, when the possibility of gaining acceptance was subsequently implied, participants should be willing to behave in prosocial ways despite their post-rejection hostility toward their rejecters. But, we expected this to happen only if they were maximally threatened – that is, the rejection was harsh and occurred in a normatively self-defining situation and the person valued but doubted acceptance, assessed using the rejection sensitivity (RS) measure. The RS measure captures the level of rejection threat that people experience when they seek acceptance but fear rejection from someone they value. We expected gender differences in the circumstances under which prosocial behavior would occur after rejection that paralleled gender differences in normatively self-defining situations. For men rejection that threatens their reputation among peers should be particularly threatening whereas for women rejection from a close other in whom they were invested should be particularly threatening.
We first tested these predictions in three studies in which participants were told we wanted to learn about the formation of internet based social groups. (Participants are always carefully debriefed on study completion). We expected this group-based situation to be self-defining for men but not for women. In the first session participants wrote an email describing themselves to members of a group they were bidding to enter. In the second session they got feedback from members of the group that was either accepting, mildly rejecting, or harshly rejecting. Participants then wrote a message to the group, which we coded for hostility. As expected, rejection in the absence of any possibility of revocation elicited hostility that was proportionate to the harshness of the rejection. Finally, after the message was written they learned of a possible opportunity to meet the group members for a social occasion and asked how much they would be willing to contribute to the group meeting. This was our measure of prosocial behavior.
The amount that participants were willing to pay generally decreased among women and among men who were low in RS as the rejection feedback from the group became harsher. For high RS men, however, willingness to pay increased following a harsh rejection. In that condition, high RS men were willing to pay significantly more than low RS men. In a 4th study, high RS women showed a gender-appropriate form of prosocial behavior following a harsh rejection in a situation particularly self-defining for women, being rejected by a prospective dating partner toward whom they had been induced to feel invested and close.
Overall, the studies showed that an initial hostile reaction to a harsh rejection can be transformed to a prosocial reaction when a person high in RS gets the opportunity to engage in such behavior in the context of a normatively self-defining social task. But, the specific form of prosocial behavior must be a culturally scripted means of making a positive impression.
Does the use of prosocial behavior to gain someone’s acceptance predict level of hostility following a subsequent rejection by that person? The prior set of studies examined the circumstances under which an initial hostile reaction could be transformed to prosocial behavior. Next, Rainer Romero-Canyas, Kavita Reddy, Sylvia Rodriguez and I (2) examined the circumstances under which prosocial behavior could be transformed to hostility. Specifically, does the use of prosocial behavior to gain acceptance from someone predict the level of hostility following a rejection by that person? If this was the case, it could help explain a puzzle: Why do people who are particularly concerned about acceptance and fearful of rejection respond to rejection in hostile ways that often lead to breakup? We reasoned that the objective meaning of the rejection may be changed by the prosocial efforts people invest in securing acceptance – particularly efforts that can involve prioritizing a partner’s needs and silencing their own and so can be considered self-sacrificing. When these prosocial behaviors are met with rejection instead of the acceptance they typically elicit, the sense of betrayal and unfairness is likely to be magnified, fueling a hostile response.
Using an internet dating paradigm, we assessed people’s efforts to increase their similarity to a partner selected to be a good match for them. Making oneself more similar to someone else generally creates a positive impression on that person and is considered a form of prosocial behavior. Specifically, we focused on increasing one’s similarity through keeping silent about aspects of one’s identity that conflicted with the match. We asked two questions: Does the magnitude of people’s hostility following a rejection by their match reflect the magnitude of their efforts to increase similarity through self-silencing? Do these self-silencing efforts help explain the heightened post-rejection hostility shown to be characteristic of those high in RS?
We recruited college students who were not currently in a committed relationship for a study of nonphysical characteristics that predict successful online matchmaking. In an initial online session, students completed a private personal profile modelled on those used by online dating services in which they indicated preferences for things like music, TV, hobbies. They expected that the private profile would be used to select an opposite-sex dating match for them to meet but that the match would not see this private profile.
They subsequently visited the lab to provide a profile to be shared with the person selected to be their match, whom they expected to meet in a return visit. The lab session began with participants completing the RS Questionnaire. Two thirds were randomly assigned to read the profile of the person selected as their match. One third were assigned to read the profile of a sample match. All were then asked to write a profile to be shared with their match.
We compared the private and public profiles and identified omissions from the pubic profile of preferences given in the private profile that conflicted with a preference given by the match. For example, a participant wrote she liked Metallica in her private profile. The match we had fabricated for her wrote that he didn’t like heavy metal. The participant omitted liking Metallica from the profile she completed to share with the match after reading the match’s profile. An omission from a shared profile of a privately revealed preference that conflicted with a match’s preference was treated as one self-silencing omission.
When participants returned to meet their match, they were either told the match had read their profile and chosen not to meet them (rejection condition) or had not come because of a scheduling conflict. They then provided their impressions of their match, which we coded for hostility. This was our measure of post-rejection hostility.
Of the 2/3 who had read the match’s profile, half were rejected by the match – the person for whom they had written their public profile. The match-rejection condition was where we expected to find the hypothesized effects. The remaining half of those who had read the match’s profile were told of the scheduling conflict. This condition was included to establish that self-silencing omissions would lead to hostility only when a rejection occurs. Participants who had read a sample profile before writing their own profile in session 2 were rejected. But, their rejection came from a novel person with whom they had no prior connection. This condition was included to establish that the self-silencing-hostility link would emerge only when self-silencing omissions were for a match – someone to whom they tailored their public profile -- who rejected them.
What did we find? Replicating prior work and regardless of gender, participants in the two rejection groups showed significantly more hostility than in the scheduling-conflict group. What about the link between self-silencing omissions and post-rejection hostility? In the match-rejection condition, in which participants were rejected by the person for whom they had generated their profile, those who omitted more conflicting preferences showed a more hostile response. This association was only significant for women, which is consistent with other work suggesting that women are more likely than men to use self-silencing as a strategy to prevent rejection. Mediational analyses showed that level of omissions helped explain the link between RS and hostility in women following rejection from a match. Consistent with expectations, hostility did not differ by omission level in the other conditions.
Overall, the results show that RS predicts prosocial behavior, in the form of self-silencing omissions, when acceptance is a possible and desired outcome and also predicts hostility when the desired acceptance is not forthcoming. The results also show that the magnitude of post-rejection hostility is explained by the magnitude of effort invested in gaining acceptance.
RS, prosocial behavior, and perceived connection in dyadic perspective. The studies described so far have focused on one side of a social interaction, experimentally controlling the other side. What about self-silencing prosocial behavior in naturally occurring social interaction? Might it be route acceptance for those high in RS? Or, paradoxically might it lead to an underestimation of how much one is liked or accepted by one’s partner, potentially sowing the seeds of hostile resentment? Does the answer depend on the RS level of one’s partner as dyadic perspectives would suggest? Lauren Aguilar is the lead author on a Journal of Personality paper (3) that addressed these questions by capitalizing on the naturally occurring phenomenon of speech accommodation, the process by which conversation partners come to sound more similar to one another during conversation. Accommodation occurs at all levels of speech from choice of words to phonemes, or basic parts of speech, where accommodation happens outside of conscious awareness. Our focus was on phonemes.
Speech accommodation is thought to facilitate communication by helping ensure that both members of the dyad have a shared mental representation of the conversation topic. But, it has also been suggested that speech accommodation, like other forms of mimicry, serves social goals. According to the similarity-attraction hypothesis, to the extent that people mimic the speech of their partner, increasing their similarity to the partner, their partner should feel a greater sense of connection to them. Support for this view is suggested by experimental evidence that rejection leads to heightened gestural mimicry and, second, that gestural mimicry induces feelings of connection in the partner. However, the available experimental evidence does not reveal whether the high RS person who mimics a partner also feels a connection to the partner. If what matters is increased similarity, regardless of how it comes about, then this should be the case. But, if feeling connected depends on receiving accommodation, both parties must accommodate for each to feel connected to the other. If instead one member of a dyad accommodates to the partner but the other does not, the interaction may leave the partner feeling connected but the accommodator feeling rejected. Thus, whether accommodation is an adaptive route to gaining acceptance for someone high in RS may depend on the partner and more specifically on the RS-composition of the dyad. To test these possibilities, we conducted a study of the effects of RS on speech accommodation during dyadic conversation in which participants were selected to be high or low in RS (top and bottom 30% of RS score distribution) and randomly assigned to dyads either matched or mismatched in RS.
In dyads mismatched in RS, we expected that the high RS partner would accommodate her speech more toward that of the low RS partner than vice versa given prior evidence that lower status people will accommodate more than higher status people in dyads mismatched in status. In dyads matched in RS, we expected the levels of accommodation to be equal and reasonably high in order to facilitate communication goals. We expected that the extent that an individual is accommodated to by the partner, the individual will feel a sense of connection with the partner. If receiving accommodation matters for feelings of connection, in dyads mismatched in RS, the low RS partner should feel connected to the high RS person but the high RS partner – whose speech is not mimicked -- should not feel as much connection. Instead, similarity, irrespective of how it comes about, may lead to feelings of connection. In that case, the more one dyad member accommodates to the other, narrowing the gap between the two, the more each member should feel connected to the other.
We taped dyad members’ conversation while completing a map task. One member had the completed map and was to lead the other member through conversation to replicate the completed map. Within each pair one person was randomly assigned to the role of a giver or of a receiver of the map information but the results we describe hold regardless of assigned role. This psycholinguistics paradigm is useful because it reveals how much a person changes speech to sound more like the conversation partner. The task required repeated utterances of place names, for example, tall mountain. Participants also read the place names embedded in sentences before the task began. During the task participants were separated by a divider so the only communication was verbal. After the map task was completed participants independently reported their perceived connection to their partner.
We measured speech accommodation as how much one dyad member’s speech increased in resemblance to the speech of the other dyad member from before to during the conversation. Accommodation was assessed by a large independent set of listeners who judged the phonetic similarity of speech samples from the task in an AXB test. A trial in the test involved two utterances – A and B --of the same landmark label (e.g., tall mountain) by the talker. These flanked an utterance of the same landmark produced by the partner—X. A was a Map Task repetition of the label by the talker just after the partner had said the label. B was the talker’s Pre-Task version of the label. The listeners’ task was to answer the question: Does X sound more like A or like B? The accommodation scores for each talker in a dyad is the percent of judgments on which the listeners picked B, that is, a talker’s Map Task Repetition, as more similar to a partner’s Map Task utterance. Values reliably greater than 50% indicate detection of phonetic accommodation.
In analyzing the data we were interested in how people’s level of accommodation was affected by their own level of RS and by whether they were in dyads matched or mismatched in RS . We used David Kenny’s actor – partner interdependence model and a multilevel analysis in which dyad and rater were treated as random effects and giver/receiver status was controlled. People in dyads matched in either high or low RS showed levels of accommodation that were significantly higher than 50% and their partners felt connected to them. However, in dyads with members mismatched in RS, there was a notable asymmetry in speech accommodation and perceptions of connection: Those high in RS accommodated more than their low RS partners (and at levels similar to individuals in matched dyads) but emerged with the least feelings of connection to their partners. By contrast, low RS people accommodated less than their high RS partners but felt more connected to them. Meditational analyses showed that non-accommodation by low RS individuals in mismatched dyads helped explain the relatively low feelings of connection in their high RS partners.
Although a person’s own accommodation toward a partner increased dyadic similarity, it did not influence the person’s own perceived connection to the partner. This contradicts the common assumption that when similarity increases so will each dyad member’s perceived connection to the other. Instead, receipt of accommodation mattered for perceiving a connection. So, when accommodation was unequal, the more accommodating member felt less connected than the member who did less accommodating. Perhaps imbalance in accommodation rather than perceptual distortion may help explain why high RS people underestimate how much their partners like them as we have found in prior research. Specifically, high RS people’s eagerness to accommodate to secure acceptance may dampen reciprocal affiliative gestures by their partners who are low in RS. If this inequity continues, it may well lead to resentment and perhaps hostility. Future research will need to examine this possibility.
Conclusions. My goal was to give a sense of our work on understanding in a dynamic, or “if… then” framework, how rejection sensitivity can give rise to both prosocial behavior and antisocial behavior (for more information see http://socialrelations.psych.columbia.edu). Our work has revealed the following: First, people high in RS will engage in prosocial behavior at a cost to the self when they feel it will influence their acceptance. This is especially true when the rejection is harsh and hits at the core of their identity and they value acceptance but doubt its attainability, as indicated by being high in RS. Second, the level of hostility shown by people high in RS toward a rejection source may reflect the level of prosocial efforts they have enacted to gain acceptance from that person. Third, just as hostile reactions to perceived rejection can reinforce RS so too can prosocial behavior when it serves to unintentionally inhibit reciprocal affiliation in partners who are confident of acceptance. Somewhat paradoxically, high RS people may not benefit from interacting with partners who are confident of acceptance and instead leave such interactions reinforced in their rejection expectations.
At broader level, I’ve learned from attempting to reconcile the lines of research linking rejection with both pro and antisocial behavior that a more complete understanding of this phenomenon and any complex phenomenon requires attending to individual differences, to the social context of the rejection, to its form and to its normative significance to the population being studied. As psychology grapples with concerns about nonreplication, it is important to have a conceptual framework as well as a methodological framework for pondering what needs to be in place for behavior to show consistency.
1. Romero-Canyas, R., Downey, G., Reddy, K.S., Rodriguez, S., Cavanaugh, T., & Pelayo, R. (2010). Paying to belong: When does rejection trigger ingratiation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 802-823.
2. Romero-Canyas, Reddy, K., Rodriguez, S. & Downey, G. (2013). After all I have done for you: Relational accommodation fuels post-rejection hostility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 732-740.
3. Aguilar, L., Downey, G., Pardo, J., Krauss, R., Bolger, N., & Lane, S. (in press). A dyadic perspective on speech accommodation and social connection: Both partners’ acceptance needs matter, Journal of Personality.