Rejection to aggression, Pt. 2

Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

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

In Part 1 of this story, experts featured in “Reject: The Science of Belonging,” a documentary screened for youth workers attending an Indiana Youth Institute lunch seminar this month, outlined the way humans react to social pain, including feeling ostracized or rejected, in much the same way as we do physical pain. In Part 2, experts discussed the aggressive reactions they found in real-life and laboratory settings where those feelings of rejection boiled over into violence.

Following reading about the negative impact that can stick with children as they grow up feeling rejected, especially by parents (favoritism, etc.), Ronald Rohner dedicated his career to studying the effects of interpersonal rejection and acceptance. He said the reaction to rejection is something that is universal throughout humanity.

“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.”

Loyola University’s James Garbarino said that response can often manifest in violence or aggression.

“Rejection almost always leads to the prospect of shame and rage,” he said.

University of Kentucky Psychology Professor C. Nathan DeWall, added to Purdue’s Kipling Williams’ Cyberball study (read more about that study in Part 1), allowing individuals to retaliate against other players (or perceived players) who they felt rejected them.

“Simply by making them feel rejected by someone they just met, they make that person suffer by blasting that person with more intense or prolonged white noise,” said DeWall. “… One thing that’s particularly disturbing about this is rejected people behave aggressively, not only to the people who rejected them, the perpetrator, but they also behave aggressively to bystanders, people who had nothing to do with the rejection episode and had no knowledge of the rejection episode.”

Former prison resident psychiatrist Dr. Herbert E. Thomas recalled an incident where he and the major of the guards were walking across the yard and were approached by an inmate.

“I was smiling at him, I was glad to see him,” Thomas said. “Suddenly, the major of the guards started cursing this man out and I couldn’t figure out what was happening. The inmate’s face turned, initially, red and then very white, as I recall, and he just became stone-faced and walked away. I turned to my friend and I said, ‘Why did you do that?’ and he said, ‘I thought he had a knife in his hand in his pocket, and I thought he was going to take it out.’ That man walked off to his cell where he found a shiv and the first officer who he saw, he stabbed him in the abdomen 27 times. When that man’s face changed color, it had to be about him experiencing physical pain. That’s what led to the violence. It’s all about pain, physical pain.”

Williams said violent reactions following rejection — in schools, domestic situations, job places and in general — are a way of forcing people to acknowledge the perpetrator.

“It’s a way to regain a sense of control,” he said. “Being rejected strips away your feeling of meaningful existence and this says, ‘Hey, you’d better pay attention to me. I’m important; I can affect your lives.’”

It was something that seemed to rise to the collective consciousness especially following the Columbine High School shooting in April 1999, which left 24 injured and 15 dead, including the shooters. The shooters left evidence of their reasoning behind the massacre, with bullying and feelings of ostracization, intended or otherwise, being among them.

Another teen murderer at a high school, Luke Woodham, who killed three people — his mother, ex-girlfriend and her friend — and wounded others in Pearl, Mississippi, in 1997, also blamed feeling ostracized for his desire to hurt others. His case was also mentioned in the documentary.

“I am not insane, I am angry,” he said in a message left for a friend before he started shooting. “I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I did this to show society, push us and we will push back. ... All throughout my life, I was ridiculed, always beaten, always hated. Can you, society, truly blame me for what I do? Yes, you will. ... It was not a cry for attention, it was not a cry for help. It was a scream in sheer agony saying that if you can’t pry your eyes open, if I can’t do it through pacifism, if I can’t show you through the displaying of intelligence, then I will do it with a bullet.”

Hunter Hurst, founder of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, said bullying, to some people, isn’t that big of a deal.

“When you talk to some people about bullying, they will say, ‘Well, that’s part of growing up.’ That is part of learning how to swim, if you will, in the sea of humanity. That’s real. That’s life. You must be able to cope with that. That, too, is true, but you have extreme forms of rejection and when that meets vulnerable people, you have disasters.”

Hurst said there may be a reason why some people get more aggressive and violent following an incident of rejection, and that has to do with whether they feel there is a chance they could be socially re-included. Then comes the person’s relationship to the person doing the rejecting, witnesses to the rejection, the vulnerability of the person to being rejected, whether the person is rejected in total or just an aspect of them, and the degree of surprise at the rejection.

For the sake of time, those gathered for the Indiana Youth Institute seminar weren’t able to view the documentary as a whole, but they did spend some time discussing how the documentary’s message may change how they look at what’s going on in the groups they work with and how they look at the incidents they see.

For more about “Reject: The Science of Belonging,” visit


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