How Social Rejection Affects the Heart

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Research from psychologists reveals how social rejection can be literally "heartbreaking". In a study, scientists discovered that the autonomic nervous system responds to emotional pain, slowing heart rate. The finding reinforce that the same area of the brain responds to both physical and social pain, shown in past studies.

Researchers discovered the connection between emotional and physical pain in a study that recruited volunteers asked to send photographs of themselves. The participants were told the photo would be sent to another university for other students to view and decide whether they liked the volunteer.


In reality, the instructions were just a "cover". Instead the volunteers were taken to a laboratory a few weeks later and told they would view photographs of unfamiliar faces. They were asked to guess whether that person liked them or not - a response that was computer generated.

Heart Beat Slower in Response to Social Rejection

All of the volunteers were attached to heart monitors. The study showed that just the anticipation of being told someone doesn't like you slows the heart rate. In the laboratory, heart rate slowed even further if the volunteers were told the other person didn't like them.

Other findings showed heart rate returned to normal more slowly in response to not being liked. The sheer emotional impact of finding out the answer also affected heart rate. In the study, volunteers who were expected they would be liked, but told otherwise had an even greater drop in heart rate. Unexpected social rejection could literally feel ‘heartbreaking,’ as reflected by a transient slowing of heart rate,” the researchers write.



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