People who are hurt by rejection may respond by behaving aggressively toward other individuals as a response to the betrayal they feel they experienced.
People who have been hurt are more likely to turn around and hurt other people. People who feel that they have been rejected socially are more likely to perceive the actions of others as hostile and are more likely to be hurtful toward others. This hurtful behavior is even directed at people they have never met.
A study by the University of Kentucky may help to explain why social exclusion is frequently linked to aggression. People who see themselves as misfits may boil over with aggression, such as in the case of school shootings.
The study’s lead author, C. Nathan DeWall, Ph.D, made a statement in a press release 1
“Prior case studies show the majority of school shooters have experienced chronic peer rejection. While not everyone who feels rejected reacts violently, we found they tend to act out aggressively in other ways. We wanted to help explain psychologically why this happens.”
A full report of the study appears in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association.
DeWall conducted four separate experiments with 190 participants, who were all college students. The participants completed personality tests and were given bogus feedback about the results. A third of the participants were the excluded group and were told they would probably end up alone later in life. The other groups were either told they would have lasting and meaningful relationships or they were given no feedback.
In one experiment, the participants were then asked to evaluate an essay from another, unknown participant. They were told that the person who wrote the essay was up for a research assistant position and they were asked for their opinion, based upon the essay, of whether the author would be a good candidate.
The participants who had been told they were going to have a lonely life gave a much more negative evaluation of the essay then the control groups.
In another experiment, participants were led to believe they were playing a reaction-time computer game with another person in the lab whom they could not see and had never met. During the game, the loser of each trial was forced to listen to a blast of white noise through headphones. The participants could set the noise’s intensity level and duration. The participants who had been told they were going to have a lonely life reacted by blasting a higher level of painful noise than the control groups.
DeWall stated that the participants who had experienced a form of betrayal acted in similar ways in all experiments, suggesting that people who feel betrayed by others see otherwise neutral actions as hostile. As a result of this perception they behave badly towards others.”
The researchers hope that further study can lead to a better understanding of why rejection causes aggression with the goal of learning how to prevent harmful behavior.