Study illuminates the 'pain' of social rejection

The study demonstrates that the same regions of the brain that become active in response to painful sensory experiences are activated during intense experiences of social rejection.

 
New research shows that physical pain and intense feelings of social rejection "hurt" in the same way. (Credit: iStockphoto/Photo_Concepts)

"These results give new meaning to the idea that social rejection 'hurts'," said University of Michigan social psychologist Ethan Kross, lead author of the article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "On the surface, spilling a hot cup of coffee on yourself and thinking about how rejected you feel when you look at the picture of a person that you recently experienced an unwanted break-up with may seem to elicit very different types of pain.

"But this research shows that they may be even more similar than initially thought."

Kross, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Department of Psychology and faculty associate at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR), conducted the study with University of Michigan colleague Marc Berman, Columbia University's Walter Mischel and Edward Smith, also affiliated with the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and with Tor Wager of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

While earlier research has shown that the same brain regions support the emotionally distressing feelings that accompany the experience of both physical pain and social rejection, the current study is the first known to establish that there is neural overlap between both of these experiences in brain regions that become active when people experience painful sensations in their body.

These regions are the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula.