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The Sunday Statesman Magazine
Crystal Ball

Rejection hurts

The Zee Cine Awards ceremony in Dubai was a nightmare for both Amitabh Bachchan and Amar Singh. They were told told to sit right in the middle of the crowd, with no special security arrangements. On the record Amitabh was cool, but surely he felt hurt. Amar Singh, on the other hand, was furious. When Amitabh came on the stage to receive his Life Time Achievement Award he looked normal. But recent scientific studies suggest that much more was going on in his agitated mind.
The hurt a person feels when snubbed is much more than a literary metaphor. Famous psychiatrist Dr George Engel collected 275 newspaper accounts of sudden deaths. He discovered that 21 of these had been caused by “loss of status, humiliation, failure or defeat”. Psychologists believe that the pain of being snubbed may have evolved because of the importance of social bonds for survival and progress. A research study conducted at the University of California (and published in the October issue of Science) suggests that being snubbed can “hurt” the same way as breaking a leg.
Naomi Eisenberger, then a PhD candidate in social psychology and the study’s lead researcher, used functional magentic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 13 undergraduate volunteers playing a cyberball game. In the game three animated characters threw a ball at one another and created three different social settings. The middle character in the game was controlled by the participants, while the two other characters were computer-controlled.
In the first setting, the participants were told that they couldn’t take part in the game because of technical problems. So they watched the other two animated players throw the virtual ball at one another. This setting was designed to mimic “implicit social exclusion” in which one person is left out for reasons beyond his or her control. The second setting was a fair game in which all three animated characters participated and threw the ball at one another.
In the third setting, after a few rounds of fair play the two animated characters began to ignore the third player. For the next 45 throws, the participants didn’t get the ball to throw. Like Amar Singh, the participants considered this situation as “explicit social exclusion.”
The brain scans of the participants showed that both settings – implicit and explicit social exclusion — triggered some kind of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The anterior cingulate cortex, located in the centre of the brain, is known to be involved in sensing and processing physical pain. It alarms higher brain regions that drives the victim to act in order to stop the pain. When the participants felt they were being deliberately slighted, the right ventral prefrontal cortex was also activated. The right ventral prefrontal cortex is located behind the forehead and eyes. It is associated with pain, thinking with emotions and with self-control.
The researchers also discovered an interesting point: The volunteers who had most activity in the prefrontal cortex had the least amount of activity in the cingulate. Between the anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex, scientists do not fully know who is in control. But activation of the prefrontal cortex appears to help dampen the distress of both physical pain and social exclusion.
In an another study on isolation and rejection, social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues asked their subjects to take a variety of intelligence tests. Subjects were again asked to take the tests after some unpleasant experiences. Some subjects were given a personality evaluation that misled them to believe that they were destined to spend their lives alone. Other subjects were introduced with a group of strangers who, they were told, would be available to help them complete the task at hand. But later subjects were told that none of the strangers wished to work with them.
Rejection really hurts. The performance of subjects decreased significantly as a result of their negative experiences; their IQ scores dropped by some 25 per cent and their analytical reasoning by about 30 per cent. “Connecting with others is one of the deepest and most powerful human drives, and thwarting it has a big impact,” concluded Baumeister in his two-year long study. According to Baumeister, one may not think straight for a while after being rejected. Amar Singh really lost his mind as he started blasting event organisers on the spot. Verbalising distress may partially shut down areas of the brain that register emotional pain. In a sense, by expressing his feelings Amar Singh may have done the greatest favour to himself. While his memories about this much publicised episode are most likely to fade away eventually, Amitabh will most probably never be able to forget this incident.

(A former project coordinator with the National Council of Science Museums, India and exhibits manager at the Discovery Centre, Halifax, Raj Kaushik now works as senior server developer in Toronto.)

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