Everyone knows what rejection feels like. It’s a universal (and universally disliked) experience, but it’s one that we each experience differently. For the most part, people are pretty good at moving on with their lives — even better than they might guess. Sometimes, though, getting rejected hurts more than we expect, especially if our immediate response is to become self-critical.
So what makes one person more resilient than another in the face of rejection?
This is a popular topic in psychology, and researchers have investigated many contributing factors, such as differing attachment styles, coping mechanisms, and levels of self-esteem. But Lauren Howe, a doctoral student in social psychology at Stanford, wanted to understand why some people change how they see themselves after a rejection — and how this tendency differentiates who recovers over time and who continues to suffer.
She learned that her professor, the psychologist Carol Dweck, had also been thinking about it, and the two began exploring the psychological mechanisms that make people more likely to link rejection to the self, effectively making it worse.
Dweck is best known for her work on implicit personality theory, the idea that people have growth mindsets (i.e., they believe personality traits are malleable) or fixed mindsets (personality traits don’t change) and that these beliefs shape how people approach and make sense of their social world. Her previous research has found that people with fixed mindsets (also called entity theorists) chronically judge themselves and tend to see their outcomes as evidence of who they are and what they’re capable of. So, for example, getting a bad grade on a test leads them to think they’re not smart. People with growth mindsets (incremental theorists) see outcomes not as evidence of who they are but as evidence of what they could improve in the future and what challenges they could overcome.
Howe and Dweck conducted a series of studies to see whether the same idea holds when people are rejected. Focusing on romantic rejection, which can be especially potent in threatening the self, they predicted that those with fixed mindsets would take rejection as proof that they are flawed or undesirable. They predicted these people would start to question who they are and carry this emotional baggage with them into the future, stalling their recovery. Growth mindset people, the researchers guessed, wouldn’t see the experience as reflective of their worth. The results were recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
In the first study, they recruited 194 participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The researchers assessed people’s mindsets by noting how much they agreed with statements such as ”Everyone, no matter who they are, can significantly change their basic characteristics” and “The kind of person you are is something very basic about you, and it can’t be changed much.” The researchers used a continuous scale in all the studies so they wouldn’t separate people into two groups based on their beliefs. Across all the studies, there were some who agreed more with incremental views and some who agreed more with entity views.
The researchers then asked people to recall a painful romantic rejection and respond to a series of statements about the experience and its impact. They controlled for how long ago the rejection happened and how severe it was, as well as participants’ current relationship status.
They found that rejection made participants with more of a fixed mindset more likely to worry that there is something wrong with them. Compared to people with more of a growth mindset, they experienced more negative emotions, such as shame, embarrassment, anger, and frustration. They also agreed more strongly that talking about the past would harm new relationships — even though, on average, people were thinking about rejections that had happened five years ago.
The researchers conducted a second study to better measure whether rejection actually altered how fixed mindset people see themselves. They measured how people felt when looking back (“I feel kind of bad about myself when I think about being rejected by this person”; “It sometimes upsets me to be reminded of this person”) and whether people feared it happening again (“Deep down, I sometimes worry that I might never find someone who really loves me”; “I put up walls to protect myself in new relationships”).
Just as with the first study, they found that people who endorsed more of a fixed mindset felt worse, both generally and about themselves specifically, after being rejected. Stronger beliefs about personality being fixed also predicted more fear about being rejected again and greater distress when reminiscing. These people typically didn’t take positive lessons away from the experience; they simply wished it had never happened.
A third study included an open-ended essay question: “What did you take away from this rejection?” The researchers found that people with fixed mindsets used a more negative tone in their responses and were more pessimistic about future relationships.
Each of the experiments raised the question of whether these effects appear only in memorable cases, so Howe and Dweck conducted another study to rule that out. They had participants respond to one of two hypotheticals, a seemingly smaller rejection and a more significant one. One group was told to imagine how they would respond if they met someone at a party, felt a “spark,” and then later overheard the person saying that they weren’t interested. (Ouch.) The other group had to imagine a significant other of several years leaving them out of the blue after a fight. (Bigger ouch.)
The researchers found that while people generally responded more negatively to the larger rejection, people with fixed mindsets responded to both scenarios more severely than people with growth mindsets.
“We were surprised when we saw those differences emerge in the smaller condition,” Howe told me. “One reason for it might be that if someone rejects you without even getting to know you first, you might wonder if there is some quality about you that is so obviously undesirable that a virtual stranger would say, ‘No, no thanks, not interested.’”
Because these findings were correlational, Howe and Dweck conducted a fifth study to try to establish causality. They primed 121 subjects to adopt a certain mindset before thinking about a hypothetical rejection: One group read articles describing how personality traits seem set in stone after young adulthood (i.e., “3 Critical Factors That Shape Who You Are”); the second group read about how these traits can be developed anytime (“3 Key Ways to Shape Who You Are”).
You can probably guess the results. People induced to adopt fixed mindsets were more concerned that the fake rejection would change how they and others saw themselves. They reported feeling worse about themselves, and they thought rejection would happen again. This, the researchers say, suggests causal evidence that even being exposed to the idea that personality traits are fixed can make it harder for people to recover from rejection.
Two other things are worth noting from the study. First, perhaps surprisingly, no consistent gender effects appeared throughout the experiments. Second, life satisfaction was uncorrelated with implicit theories and self-esteem, suggesting that people with a more fixed mindset are not generally more discontent than others.
Of course, romantic rejection is very different from other kinds of rejection, but could these findings still apply to rejections we experience in our careers and social circles? Howe said they did think the findings could generalize more broadly, perhaps in other types of social relationships (with friends and family, for example) and in contexts that aren’t interpersonal (academic or career failures), but they’d have to conduct actual studies in those domains to know for sure.
“Imagine you’re rejected for a job that you’re really interested in. You might start asking yourself, ‘What skills do I lack? What things don’t make me a good employee? I thought I was well suited for this position, but I guess I was wrong. What does this say about me?’” Howe said. “I think it could play out similarly, but we’d have to do work to confirm that.”
It also isn’t clear whether people always have the same mindset. Howe said that some research shows it can be domain-specific — so you might have a fixed theory of intelligence and a growth theory about personality. Researchers are still studying how we develop these mindsets.
But the important thing to remember is that it seems like people can change how they think about personality traits, as the fifth study attests to. “I think a lot of us have a gut instinct to question ourselves in the face of rejection,” Howe said, “but we’ll be better off pausing and taking a moment to think about what happened that wasn’t about us. What were the situational factors that might have led to this outcome? What was going on with the timing or with the other person?”
About the Author
Nicole Torres is an assistant editor at Harvard Business Review.
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