“Why does it hurt?” I demand, head in my hands as I read yet another e-mail informing me that I didn’t get the job. If you’re a fan of John Green, you might answer “because it mattered”, while if you’re a presenter for an ultra-cheesey educational TV show, you might say “because of science!” Both might just be right.
Recent scientific studies have suggested that the wounded feelings we experience after social rejections like being excluded from a group outing, or even being broken up with, might actually not be so different from our experience of physical pain.
One study recruited 40 participants, all of whom had experienced an unwanted romantic break-up within the last six months, and who claimed to feel strong feelings of rejection when looking back on the experience. The participants were given two tasks. In the first task, an “emotional pain” task, participants viewed either a photo of their ex-partner and were asked to think about the break-up, or instead viewed a photo of a friend and thought about a positive experience they had shared with the friend. In the second task, the participants were caused mild physical pain – now this is starting to sound like an unethical horror story – of the same kind of intensity as holding a hot cup of coffee.
Both of these tasks were completed whilst participants underwent an fMRI scan, which measured levels of brain activity in various areas of the brain by monitoring blood flow. The results showed that when participants experienced powerful feelings of social rejection during the emotional pain task, this activated some of the same areas of the brain as the physical pain task. This supports the theory that there may be some overlap between social and physical pain. The scientists hope that this may lead to more information on how emotional pain such as an intense social loss (for example, bereavement) may lead to physical pain symptoms and pain disorders.
But why would our brain betray us in this way? Isn’t it bad enough that we feel pain when we step on a piece of lego, or stub our toe?
Evolutionary biologists believe that emotional pain may be an important evolutionary response, which has aided our survival in the past. Humans are born very immature compared to a lot of other animals, and need to be cared for to survive, as we’re unable to feed or fend for ourselves for several years after birth. From an early age, humans rely on others for their survival, requiring social bonds to be made. Additionally, being part of a social group used to be incredibly important for survival: early humans needed to work together to share responsibility and share out the roles of hunting, gathering, caring for offspring and protecting the group from predators. To some extent, this is still important now, though less so for survival, as we’re more likely to survive a lone trip to the supermarket than we might have been to hunt a wild animal.
To remain a part of the group, individuals need to share a social connection with the other members, and our brain seems to have evolved a way of cementing the importance of these connections into our minds. The pain we feel when we’re rejected or excluded deters us from doing anything that could upset the rest of the social group or which might put our status in the group in jeopardy. When we do get rejected, we feel this pain, not unlike physical pain, that ensures that we never want to be rejected again.
Unfortunately, this seems more harmful than helpful when it comes to hurtful social experiences in school or at work, and we’re left feeling unhappy, hurt and rejected. However, some people believe, and this is supported in a limited number of scientific studies, that outgoing, more sociable people are likely to lead happier lives, as this can make you feel more supported, and accepted, suggesting that these feelings of pain during social rejection might still be relevant today. Maybe John Green was right: it hurt because it mattered.
Featured image by Image by markus spiske
For more on the science behind social rejection, Naomi Eisenberger has written an excellent and detailed explanation.