To Make Rejection Hurt Less, Your Brain Plays a Trick on Your Vision

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Photo: Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images

Here’s a small scrap of comfort next time your friend blows you off, or that Tinder match ghosts you, or you see on Facebook that everyone’s hanging out without you: At least your brain’s looking out for you. In a study published last month in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology and recently highlighted by Christian Jarrett in BPS Research Digest, researchers discovered that when you feel rejected, your brain plays a little trick to help you cope, altering your visual perception to make the world seem more welcoming.

To simulate rejection, the study authors recruited 40 college students to play a three-person computer game, called Cyberball, where players threw a ball back and forth between them (Science of Us has previously written about it, here). The subjects were told that they were all playing against other people, but for half of them, the researchers had rigged the game so that the other two players only passed the ball to each other, excluding the volunteer in the lab.

In the second part of the study, participants looked at a series of photos of people either staring straight ahead, as if they were making eye contact with the viewer, or looking slightly askance. Among those who had just been left out of their games, a curious thing happened: They “were more inclined to say that off-center gazes were looking at them,” Jarrett explained, “and they tended to report feeling more strongly that they were being looked at.”

The researchers called the phenomenon a widening “cone of gaze,” arguing that it happened to help the rejectees bounce back. “Ostracized individuals demonstrated a wider gaze cone than included individuals,” they wrote, because they “demonstrate an increased need for belonging. To satisfy this need, they search for signals of inclusion, one of which may be another person’s gaze directed at oneself.” (The effect, though, was temporary — when participants then looked at a second group of photos, Jarrett explained, “this effect had worn off and there was no longer a difference between the ostracized and non-ostracized students.”)

As Jarrett noted, this study fits nicely with past research on the “social reconnection hypothesis” — the idea that ostracism will actually make people more receptive to social interaction, by pushing them to find other sources of acceptance in new people. Rejection is never fun, but at least you have a built-in way to cushion the blow.