Social Rejection and Aggression

By: Emily Taylor and Maddie Taylor

How can you reject someone without fear of retaliation? We’ve all been there. Maybe an individual lacks the skills necessary for a job, or maybe the two of you just do not click. The only solution to these problems: reject them. However, social rejection can lead to aggression towards the rejecter. If you are faced with this task and want to avoid an aggressive retaliation, pay close attention to the information that follows.

Prior research has contributed multiple explanations for an aggressive reaction. Research on the link between honor and aggression has suggested that aggression may be a method of regaining lost honor or proving one’s worth, needs which both stem from a feeling of disrespect. That is, the aggression may not be a result of the rejection, but rather a response to what the rejection is communicating to the individual about themselves. Furthermore, connectedness is a major motivation of human behavior and previous research has suggested that being respected is an important step in fulfilling one’s need to belong. Social rejection causes one to feel disrespected or disliked and therefore threatens connectedness.

In their 2013 study, Amber DeBono and Mark Muraven investigated how one’s perception of rejection affects their reactions. Specifically, they hypothesized that feeling disrespected after social rejection, rather than a feeling disliked, would lead to more aggressive behaviors. DeBono and Muraven conducted four experiments to determine the extent to which aggression is caused by an individual’s perception of being disliked or disrespected.

In experiment one participants were told to play an online game called “cyberball” with two other participants (who, in reality, were online simulations). Half of the participants were randomly assigned to the exclusion condition and were rarely passed the ball. The other half of participants were randomly assigned to the inclusion condition and were passed the ball as often as the other “participants” were. Following the game participants were told to allocate a certain amount of hot sauce into the food of the other two “participants,” in order to test their aggression. It was found that excluded participants allocated more hot sauce to the other cyberball players than the included participants did. This finding suggested that participants who felt rejected engaged in more aggressive behavior.

The results of experiment one provided useful information concerning aggressive retaliation to rejection, however, the perception of rejection was not manipulated by the experimenters. To allow for more precise findings, further experiments were conducted. In experiment three, participants were told that they would be working with another individual. Each participant completed a personality questionnaire and was told their questionnaire would be scored by the other individual. Each participant then received written feedback that constituted like, dislike, respect, or disrespect from the other individual. In reality, there was no other individual and all feedback was pre-written and identical within each condition. After participants had read the feedback, they were asked to determine how much of the next 40 minutes the “other individual” would spend doing either an art task or a mathematical task. A Work Preference Inventory had also been given to the participant stating that the “other individual” hated math but loved art. Results showed that the disrespected group was significantly more likely to assign math work than participants in the other conditions. This finding, along with the findings of the other two experiments, demonstrated that disrespect is more influential in predicting aggression than dislike.

One could argue that the results of these experiments are only valid to the extent that dislike and disrespect were accurately separated. However, the use of multiple manipulation methods and rejection measures assured that the two scenarios were correctly separated. It would also be advisable to use a larger sample size in further experimentation. Nonetheless, the consistency in replication across all four experiments of this study is supportive of the hypothesis that disrespect in social rejection does, in fact, lead to more aggressive retaliation than dislike.

All four experiments conducted in DeBono and Muraven’s study suggest that an aggressive reaction following rejection is most likely when rejection is paired with a perception of disrespect. If rejection can be made about dislike, rather than disrespect, the chance of an aggressive retaliation will be reduced. In conclusion, if looking to evade an aggressive response to rejection, it is critical to avoid conveying disrespect to whomever you are rejecting.

DeBono, A., & Muraven, M. (2014). Rejection perceptions: Feeling disrespected leads to greater aggression than feeling disliked. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 43-52.


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