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Never Let Them See You Cry

December 9, 2013

By Michael J. Bernstein (Penn State Abington), Heather M. Claypool (Miami University), Steven G. Young (Fairleigh Dickinson University), Taylor Tuscherer (Miami University), Donald F. Sacco (The University of Southern Mississippi), & Christina M. Brown (Arcadia University)

Be it a romantic break-up, friends not inviting you to a party, or a person declining your friend request on Facebook, social rejection is intensely unpleasant. Imagine, however, taking a psychological test and receiving feedback that you’re the type of a person who will live life alone, devoid of social connections — a sort of “social death” from which there is no recovery. You might think your self-esteem would be devastated. As it turns out, however, the story is not so simple.

Though some prior research shows that ostracized individuals experience reduced self-esteem (e.g., Williams, 2007), other work has not. In a recent review, researchers argued that social exclusion has no effect on self-esteem (see Blackhart, Nelson, Knowles, & Baumeister, 2009). One possible reason for these inconsistencies may be due to differing methods used to manipulate exclusion. For example, some studies exclude participants publicly (e.g., an experimenter tells participants that no one wanted to work with them), whereas others exclude participants privately (e.g., anonymously in a private cubicle). Previous work has shown that when self-presentation concerns are high (e.g., when one is being observed), participants want to appear unbothered, even while experiencing distress (Ansfield, 2007). In other words, people work very hard to appear as though nothing is wrong to prevent others from knowing they are upset. Thus, we hypothesized that self-presentational pressures to communicate that one is “feeling fine” may be a factor in understanding whether people report lower self-esteem following exclusion.

In this work (Bernstein, Claypool, Young, Tuscherer, Sacco, & Brown, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2013), we had participants report self-esteem both explicitly (by answering survey style questions) and implicitly (using a speeded categorization task in which responses are very hard to fake or control) following an episode of exclusion or non-exclusion. In the first three studies, the exclusion likely felt somewhat “public” to participants, where self-presentational concerns would be high. In the last study, we directly manipulated whether exclusion was public or private. We predicted exclusion would always lower implicit self-esteem relative to a control condition because implicit reactions should be fairly immune to strategic self-presentation. We also predicted, however, that exclusion would only lower explicit self-esteem when such concerns were low (i.e., when exclusion was or felt private).

In the first three studies, we employed the “future-life” paradigm (see Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, & Stucke, 2001). In it, participants take a personality test for which the computer analyzes their results, and then gives accurate feedback regarding participants’ levels of extroversion. This is done to bolster the believability of what comes next, which is “fake” feedback designed to create feelings in participants (i.e., the experimental manipulation). In our research, some participants were told they were the type of person who would have numerous and long lasting relationships throughout their lives (our inclusion condition). Others were told the opposite: they would lose their current friends, have difficulty making news ones, and would end up alone. In one of the three studies, a third condition was included in which participants were told their personality profile was indicative of a person who is very accident-prone (like social rejection, this is a negative experience but it is not a social one). We then measured their self-esteem by using both self-report scales and by using an implicit measure called a Self-Esteem IAT (e.g., Greenwald & Farnham, 2000; see Project Implicit). The IAT works by assessing how quickly people associate “good” with themselves as opposed to “bad” with themselves. It is a way of assessing self-esteem that is very difficult for people to control because it relies on the speed with which people make simple judgments.

We found that among excluded participants, explicit self-esteem appeared unaffected; explicit self-esteem did not differ between included and excluded participants. However, the results were strikingly different for implicit self-esteem: excluded participants had lower implicit self-esteem compared to those included. In the study with a control condition, as predicted, all three groups reported equivalent levels of explicit self-esteem, but excluded participants displayed reduced implicit self-esteem.

In the first three studies, participants probably felt their exclusion and their reaction to it was somewhat public. They likely believed that the experimenter would “see” their exclusion feedback which, after all, was delivered and recorded by the computer, and that the experimenter would also see their reported self-esteem. We argued that victims of public exclusion are motivated to exaggerate their self-esteem (and thus report feeling fine) because of self-presentation concerns. Participants can easily alter their reports of explicit self-esteem to reflect this motivation, but participants are not able to alter their reports of implicit self-esteem. Thus, when individuals experience rejection, we find that they do have lower self-esteem if they cannot alter their responses to reflect self-presentation concerns.

If this logic is correct, we also reasoned that explicit self-esteem should decrease too if excluded participants do not have self-presentational concerns. In our final study, we tested this hypothesis directly. Participants were given the exclusion or inclusion feedback publicly (where self-presentation concerns should be high) or privately (where self-presentation concerns should be low) and then completed the same implicit and explicit self-esteem measures. The results confirmed our hypothesis. In the public condition, the pattern was identical to what was found in our first three studies. However, when participants were given the rejection feedback privately, and therefore self-presentational concerns were no longer salient, excluded participants showed both lower implicit and explicit self-esteem relative to included participants.

Anecdotally, rejection hurts. Nonetheless, research has not always supported this collective intuition. In this work, however, we identified one potential explanation for this contradiction: the impact of self-presentation concerns. When such concerns are high, exclusion only lowers implicit reports of self-esteem that cannot be altered by participants. However, when self-presentation concerns are low, exclusion lowers both implicit and explicit self-esteem. Understanding the effect that self-presentation concerns have on the way people respond to social exclusion has theoretical and practical implications; in both cases, just because people say they feel fine after being rejected, it does not necessarily mean they are not hurting.

Author Information

BernsteinMichael J. Bernstein is an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at Pennsylvania State University at Abington College. He received his PhD in Social Psychology from Miami University in 2010. His research focuses on interpersonal and intergroup relations, particularly as they pertain to social exclusion.

ClaypoolHeather M. Claypool is a Professor of Social Psychology at Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Her work explores the cognitive, perceptual, and behavioral consequences of social exclusion and the impact of fluency (processing ease) on social judgments and actions. Her work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, and she currently serves as an Associate Editor at the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

YoungSteven G. Young is an Assistant Professor of Psychology. He received his PhD in Social Psychology at Miami University. His research examines how motivational and emotional states influence cognition and behavior.

TuschererTaylor Tuscherer is a doctoral candidate studying social psychology at Miami University in Oxford, OH. He received his BA from Lake Forest College north of Chicago. His primary research interests are stereotypes and prejudice, especially as they relate to perceptions of nontraditional couples (e.g., interracial, same-sex).

SaccoDonald Sacco is an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at The University of Southern Mississippi. He received his PhD in Social Psychology from Miami University. His research focuses on the causes and consequences of social inclusion and exclusion, face perception and nonverbal behavior, and the role of motivation in cognition and perception.

Christina-BrownChristina M. Brown is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Arcadia University. She received her PhD in Social Psychology from Miami University and has also taught at Saint Louis University and Earlham College. Her research explores the critical role of the self in social experiences and behavior.


Ansfield, M. A. (2007). Smiling when distressed: When a smile is a frown turned upside down. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 763-775.

Blackhart, G. C., Nelson, B. C., Knowles, M. L., & Baumeister, R. F. (2009). Rejection elicits emotional reactions but neither causes immediate distress nor lowers self-esteem: A meta-analytic review of 192 studies on social exclusion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13, 269-309.

Greenwald, A. G., & Farnham, S. D. (2000). Using the Implicit Association Test to measure self-esteem and self-concept. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 1022-1038.

Twenge, J. M., Baumeister, R. F., Tice, D. M., & Stucke, T. S. (2001). If you can’t join them, beat them: Effects of social exclusion on aggressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1058-1069.

Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 425-452.

Image Credit: Crying Doll By Theeradech Sanin, published on 29 May 2012
Stock Photo – image ID: 10084481/

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