How does our brain respond to social rejection?


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We constantly use feedback from others about ourselves to adjust our expectations in social relationships. Most people tend to be optimistic and expect to be accepted and liked by others. In contrast, individuals with high rejection sensitivity tend to expect rejection in social relationships. However, the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying these different responses to social feedback remain unclear.

A team of researchers (Pauline Petereit, Sarah Jessen, Tatiana Goregliad Fjaellingsdal and Ulrike Krämer) has published a new study on this in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The study showed that individual rejection sensitivity, as well as the contextual frequency of rejections, influenced how individuals learned from this feedback: individuals with low rejection sensitivity remained optimistic even when they received a lot of rejections, while individuals with high rejection sensitivity learned equally from rejections and positive feedback. Electroencephalogram (EEG) showed that increased frontal theta activity (4-8 Hz) predicted expectancy changes regarding social feedback. However, there were no differences in theta activity between individuals with high and low rejection sensitivity, meaning that the interindividual behavioral differences must be related to other neural mechanisms.

Pauline Petereit, Sarah Jessen, Tatiana Goregliad Fjaellingsdal, Ulrike M. Krämer (2022) Social Context and Rejection Expectations Modulate Neural and Behavioral Responses to Social Feedback. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 34(5): 823–845. doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_01829