Rejection to aggression, Pt. 1

Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

Youth Worker Cafe explores what could explain violent behavior in kids (and adults)

CNN lists 45 school shootings (preschool through college campuses) in just the first 46 weeks of this year. More than 30 of those incidents were at facilities serving kindergarten through 12th grade. Shootings were defined as incidents in which at least one person aside from the shooter was shot, on school property, and included accidental firearm discharges from non-law enforcement individuals and injuries sustained from BB guns, which the Consumer Product Safety Commission identified as potentially lethal. That doesn’t include the more mild aggression incidents that happen every day in schools.

Some experts say that the feeling of rejection or other forms of “social pain,” may explain some of that aggression.

Studies have shown that the feeling of being rejected or ostracized triggers the same part of the brain as physical pain, regardless of how you feel about the group ostracizing you, how the ostracizers are related to you or if you have a “tough personality.” The brain doesn’t discriminate between types of pain and neither do instinctual reactions, said Social Neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger in the documentary, “Reject: The Science of Belonging.”

“When animals feel extreme physical pain, one of their first responses is to attack whatever’s nearby,” she said. “This sheds some light on why people may become aggressive after they feel rejected. To the extent that there’s some overlap in the system that regulates physical pain and the system that regulates the pain of rejection, people may become aggressive in response to social rejection just like animals become aggressive when they feel physical pain.”

A group of county youth workers came together to learn more about this at a recent luncheon offered through the Indiana Youth Institute, led by Marilyn Sink, Clark County Extension Director and educator for health and human sciences. They viewed most of the “Reject” documentary and discussed what can be done to combat this.

“Thirteen out of 15 school shooters reported they’d been ostracized and rejected by their peers,” said Purdue University Social Psychologist Kipling Williams in the documentary. “In my field of study, we hadn’t really studied what happens to an individual after they’ve been socially excluded. And what do you do about that? Do you try to get back in the groove? Do you retaliate? We see this in lower animals. When a lion is ostracized by its group, within a couple of hours, it’s left behind and it’s easy prey for other animals and it usually dies.”

And the place we learn how to interact with other humans our own age? School.

“The early childhood years must provide human beings, as they do all mammals, the way of getting to know how to survive with other human beings,” said Vivian Paley, an educator and author of “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play,” a book about preventing ostracization in those early childhood years. “The natural way for all mammals, of course, is play. This is how you learn what kind of a person you want to be. What’s the score? What’s the deal? How does it work? How come some people lead the pack and others are left behind, watching? Play actually acts out all of this and other characters — animals, good guys, bad guys, daddies, mommies, princesses, monsters — all the roles get acted out and everyone gets the chance to play every single role.”

Loyola University’s James Gabarino said his definition of acceptance is receiving the message you belong and are valuable, “regular, cared for and have a positive place in the world, and that is essential for healthy, normal development. Subtract any of those things and you get into the world of rejection.”

Will Rogers Elementary School (Stillwater, Oklahoma) kindergarten teacher Terry Varnell uses Paley’s rule, that students aren’t allowed to tell another they can’t play with them, in her classroom.

“If they’re ostracized, if they’re made fun of, if they’re left out, they can’t learn in my room,” she said. “There’s just no room for that. They’re feeling all those feelings and they will not come as far. I believe that. I’ve seen that.”

Paley said she found evidence that, even by kindergarten, a “ruling class” forms among students and that it is often the same children who are made outcasts in students’ groups. She pointed out that namecalling and hitting aren’t allowed in school, but excluding children still is.

“It is the most serious event to be perceived: they are rejecting me,” said Paley. “… A good community in a school must be a good home for the least favorite person in the group, because no one feels safe otherwise.”

“They’re going to learn to read, they’re going to learn to write, they’ll learn their alphabet and their numbers, but we’re going to lose these kids if we can’t give them that sense of belonging and security and love that they so desperately need,” said Varnell.

And that goes for children and adults.

Williams decided to study ostracization after remembering an incident when he threw a Frisbee back to some boys playing in a park. The three threw the Frisbee with each other for a few minutes before the other boys went back to just throwing the Frisbee to each other. Williams turned the experience
into a video game called “Cyberball” and brought in college students to participate in his study with the game. Three individuals, or so the test subjects thought, would throw a virtual ball to each other. After a few minutes, the computer game, would stop throwing the ball to the test subject, who thought two other humans were playing those parts, and the subject’s face was analysed and they were later questioned about the experience and told they hadn’t been rejected and had been playing with a computer.

He said he noticed a difference between men and women who took part in the study. Men, especially, started out thinking the rejection was somewhat humorous when they realized the others (or, unbeknownst to them, the computer program) was excluding them, but then there’s a “drastic shift” in body language. Anger and hurt showed up in their faces and physical reactions.

“We find that it lowers self esteem after just four minutes of this,” said Williams. “It lowers their sense of control, it lowers their sense of belonging and it lowers their sense of meaningful existence.”

Test subjects reported feeling the same rejection when they knew they were playing against a computer. Some were even more angry at the computer, with one person saying that people may let you down, but computers aren’t supposed to.

Ronald Rohner, an international psychologist and professor emeritus of Human Development and Family Sciences and Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, is also the director of the Center for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance-Rejection and the executive director of the International Society of Interpersonal Acceptance-Rejection. He said, in the documentary, that there is “no single influence that has more consistent effect, developmentally, on humans around the world than the experience of being cared about or not by the people most important to them.”

These issues have been ongoing, worldwide, and studied for the past 50 years, he said.

“We are hardwired over the course of biocultural evolution to need a positive response from the people who are most important to us,” he said. “When we don’t get those needs met, we tend to respond in exactly the same way everywhere.”

You can find out more about “Reject: The Science of Belonging” by visiting

For more about those responses Rohner was talking about, read Part 2 of this story, available this afternoon.


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