Social rejection can ‘brake’ your heart

Latest study shows that a social rejection can not only break a person’s heart but also result in a drop in the heart rate. The researchers from Netherlands found that the disappointment of feeling not loved or not liked can cause both psychological and physical reactions.

The reason, say scientists may lie in a person’s autonomic nervous system, which controls such functions as circulation and digestion. For the study the team at the University of Amsterdam and Leiden University enlisted a group of 27 volunteers (18 women and 9 men). They took part in experiments and were first asked to send the scientists a photograph of themselves. They were told that the study was on ‘first impressions’, and that students at another university would look at the photos to decide whether they liked the volunteers, based on a glance at the picture. But this was a cover for the real experiment.

Afterward each volunteer visited a laboratory and had wires hooked up to their chests for an electrocardiogram. A total of 120 photos of different faces were presented to each study participant, and they were then asked to guess whether the person in the photo said they liked them. The participants wrote “yes” if they thought they were accepted by the person in the picture or “no” if they expected to be rejected by them, on one side of the photo. They then were given feedback as to how the person in the photo felt about them -- although it wasn't genuine feedback but a response generated randomly by a computer for the study.

Researchers say each volunteer’s heart rate fell in anticipation of a person’s opinion of them. And heart rate also was affected after they were told the other person’s opinion. If told the other student didn’t like them, the heart rate dropped further and took longer to get back to normal. Heart rates slowed more in people who were surprised because they’d expected that the other person seeing their photo would like them.

Authors write, “Unexpected social rejection could literally feel ‘heartbreaking,’ as reflected by a transient slowing of a heart rate… Our results reveal that the processing of unexpected social rejection is associated with a sizable response of the parasympathetic nervous system.”

Scientists have known that social rejections can trigger a variety of psychological disorders. The authors of the study write, “We found that the cardiac response to unexpected social rejection was considerably larger than heart rate changes associated with expected social rejection…This finding may also suggest that negative feelings associated with being socially rejected are reduced substantially when negative peer evaluation is anticipated.”

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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