Your Brain, networking and rejection

One of the reoccurring challenges for people is engaging their network - first connections at conferences and cocktail hours;  seeking aid to get something done or learn something.  We have a hard time reaching out.  This hard time is difficult to describe, and often leaves us afraid.

Why are we scared?

To explore the aversion to connecting with someone, we need to play a game called Cyberball.  Or, rather, look at an adventure in Cyberball.  Cyberball is a game developed by Christopher Cheung, Wilma Choi and Kip Williams in order to examine social ostracism, exclusion and rejection.   It is a video game that simulates an old-fashioned game of catch, with a twist.  The experimental participant plays on a screen with two other people, tossing the virtual ball around.   The twist is that the other two people are actually computer programs and at a certain time, they start playing with each other and ignore the participant.  Kip Williams has used this for over 15 years to uncover our reactions to being left out both online and in the real world. 

Cyberball's relation to the concern people have when engaging in rejection is intuitive: we all dislike rejection and being left out.  But more than intuitive, there is hardwired evidence for this aversion.  Williams partnered up with neuroscientists to examine participants' reactions to cyberball while inside an fMRI machine.  Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines take images of blood flow in the brain to see what parts are more active during different cognitive tasks. 

In this case, the researchers knew that ostracism in person and on screen would lower people's sense of belonging, control, self-esteem and having a meaningful existence.  They wanted to see how the brain reacted during those events to increase our understanding of the social brain. 

fMRI research is done in hospitals, because that is where the MRI machines are.  This location lead to a coincidence that helped Eisnberg, Lieberman and Williams understand how we feel social rejection.  One day while examiningthe images in the fMRI lab, a researcher working on a physical pain study was working next to them.  They commented on the similarities between the two images: both subjects had the same areas of the brain lit up in their images.  It turns out, we feel the social pain of rejection in the same place we feel actual, physical pain. 

Writing about it later, Lieberman suggests:

The mammalian need to recognize social threats appears to have hijacked the physical pain system to do what the pain system does - remind us when there is a threat to one of our basic needs.

Lieberman discusses much more about the brain in his book, and I will be referring to it frequently.  For now, I am stopping here with the question that always causes me to pause with brain research:  So what?  While it's interesting to know what your brain is doing, what can you actually do about it? 

In this case, you can take some measures to reduce the likelihood of rejection.  And that's a lesson we can learn from first-graders. 

In 1983, Martha Putallaz of Duke University did a study examining the entry behavior of young children in a lab and compare that to their social standing later in the school year.  She used confederates, much like the programs in Cyberball, to test how a child attempted to enter the social dynamic of a pair playing together.  After videotaping, she observed some consistent behavior:

Talking about themselves

Asking Informational Questions



Besides these behavior, the research team also evaluated the relevance of the statements and questions the child made.  Each statement was given a score on a scale measuring how much it was connected with the existing conversation to how much it was completely unrelated. 

Three months after the experiment, Putallaz evaluated the social status of each child using a version of social network analysis and found that the behaviors each correlated with popularity or unpopularity.   She examined how each response behavior, along with his relevance score, correlated with popularity.  

If you look back at my post Be Interesting, you may guess that talking about yourself does not increase popularity, and you would be right.  Also, with the boys in question here, talking about themselves was also an avenue to change the subject.  It was very low in relevance to what was happening in the room. 

Another intuitive answer backed up: when given a score based on the number of agreeing statements minus disagreeing statements, high A-D equaled higher popularity three months later.  Again, relevance worked in the same direction: kids who agreed more than disagreed tended to read the room and talk about what was going on instead of other topics. 

Talking about other topics was the downfall of the informational question behavior.  Children who asked a lot of informational questions in the experiment were highly likely to ignore the context and ask about irrelevant things.  So while asking "what's going on?  What are you playing?" may seem like a sound engagement strategy, it wasn't the one pursued here.  Questions were more along the line of "Do you know how big a human brain weighs?" or " What's your favorite tree?" in this example. 

This research on kids joining behavior shows us that providing relevant information is very important, and that being agreeable is very important.  

So what do we take away from this?


    1. Anxiety when joining in social situations is real.  Your brain feels the pain of rejection just as much as it feels physical injury. 

    2. When joining a conversation, fit yourself into the context.  Keep your questions and comments relevant to the subject at hand.  

    3. Be agreeable.  This doesn't mean you need to say 'Yes' to everything, but a high ratio of agreement to disagreement contributes to future relationship strength.