Here's something that won't surprise anyone who's ever participated in an online community: "People who feel socially rejected are more likely to see others' actions as hostile and are more likely to behave in hurtful ways toward people they have never even met, according to a new study."
Researchers at the University of Kentucky set out to explore the link between peer rejection and acts of violence such as school shootings. In two experiments, subjects completed a personality test, after which one group was told they were bound for loneliness, another was told they were likely to have "lasting and meaningful relationships," and a third group was given no feedback at all. All three groups were then asked to read a personal essay written by a stranger, describing actions that could be interpreted as either assertive or hostile, depending on your outlook. "Participants who were told they were going to have a lonely life perceived the author's actions as significantly more hostile and gave a much more negative evaluation than those in the control groups." In the second experiment, participants were also asked to set the intensity and duration of a "blast of white noise" that they believed would be delivered to the loser of a computer game via headphones. Again, subjects from the "lonely" group were less forgiving -- they cranked up the blast to a more painful level.
Lead author C. Nathan DeWall, Ph.D., says of the results, which appear in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, "Across all experiments, the participants who experienced some form of social rejection acted in similar ways. This suggests these people feel betrayed by others. In turn, they see otherwise neutral actions as hostile and behave badly towards others." But what's interesting to me is -- according to this article, anyway -- the participants weren't really experiencing rejection; they were only being told that they would eventually experience it. (Unless you count being told your personality test suggests you're a born loser as a form of rejection in itself, which could certainly be argued.) It appears to be the expectation of rejection that leads people to "see otherwise neutral actions as hostile" -- the old "I don't want your damn jack!" joke in action.
Obviously, in real life, that expectation often develops as the result of experiencing direct rejection, but what about all the indirect forms of rejection? How does being told by advertisers and the media that you're not white enough, not rich enough, not thin enough, not hetero enough, not masculine enough, not able-bodied enough, not healthy enough, not educated enough, etc. -- not to mention rarely seeing positive public representations of people like you -- affect your expectation of social acceptance, regardless of how well-liked you are by your peers? It seems to me that this study suggests being told you're categorically unlikable for some arbitrary reason can do damage just as surely as not being liked. (One assumes that not everyone sorted into the "lonely" group actually had trouble forming and maintaining healthy relationships outside the lab.) And I mean, on the one hand, duh -- being told you're unlikable isn't anybody's idea of a good time. But on the other hand, it's striking to see how merely hearing a negative prediction about your social future from one complete stranger can take an immediate toll. Given how many different types of people are repeatedly subjected to messages that they don't measure up, how many products are sold by whipping up people's fear of loneliness, it's kind of a wonder we're not all walking around punching strangers in the face.