‘Heartbrake’: How Rejection Literally Stops Your Heart

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Had I been given a choice, I would have preferred being born into a species that doesn’t need as much social interaction as humans do. For instance, I like to believe, vainly, that I would have been a decent great white shark. Great whites like the attention of close friends, but most of the time they hunt alone. More likely, I could have been a fantastic maned sloth, one of those weird little mammals that consumes a lot of the green world and almost never comes down from the treetops.

As it is, I’m part of a species that is so bad at being rejected that social denial lights up our central nervous systems. We’ve known this for some time: lab participants who watch as photos of them are rejected — even if they know the rejection is being done by a computer — experience not just emotional but physical distress. Your levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, fluctuate when you think you’re being rejected. It turns out that all of us are the nerdy kids on Glee: pathetic and weak when Sue Sylvester comes around, even if we know she’s a robot dressed in a sweatsuit. (More on Time.com: Science Says: Cost of Love Is Two Old Friends)

This week a new study shows that these physical effects go further: rejection actually stops your heart. Thus the clever title of the new Psychological Science paper: “The Heartbrake of Social Rejection.” The authors of the study — a three-member group led by a University of Amsterdam psychologist named Bregtje Gunther Moor  — measured beat-by-beat heart rate changes in 22 students as they received either rejection or acceptance of portrait photos they had submitted. When hooked up to electrocardiogram monitors, the students reliably showed a skip in their hearts when they thought they had been rejected by someone shown their photos.

Brutally, the students were also asked to estimate whether the faces in the photos were older or younger than 21. The same heart-skip showed up when participants thought they were being judged as older. (More on Time.com: Not Faking It: Why a Placebo Can Improve Sex Life)

Like most Psychological Science articles, this one suggests no antidote to the physical problems associated with rejection. But the findings help explain how evolution programs human sociability. We are meant to find comfort in one another — through chemical means, if necessary — and not to be loners.

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