Rejection changes the way we make decisions

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Rejection changes the way we make decisions

Have you ever hosted a party, but as the day approaches, your closest friends say they won't be able to attend? Or maybe you sent a friend request to someone on Facebook who never responded, or you weren't invited to an event that most of your friends are attending. My mother once threw a welcome party for her friend Alec Waugh, the brother of Evelyn Waugh and author of “Island in the Sun.” Unfortunately she forgot to invite the guest of honor and felt very rejected until she discovered her mistake.

 People in these situations usually feel socially excluded, which often leads to antisocial and self-defeating responses (with my mother it was gin). What would it take to persuade people to counteract this spiral toward isolation and instead re-engage in healthy relationships? A new study looked at the problem

 What the researchers say: The lead author of the study suspected that messages that appeal to emotion—rather than rationality—would be more successful in motivating people in these situations to pursue social activities again.

 “When people feel excluded, they keep thinking about that negative experience, and this depletes mental resources,” she says. “This makes it harder to process rational details, so an emotional message is more appealing.”

 To test this hypothesis, her team asked participants in one group to write about details of an experience when they felt excluded, and another group to write about an event when they felt included. The third group wrote about a neutral event (the experience of waking up the previous day). Then they showed groups different types of blood donation advertisements. The emotional ad emphasized that blood donation was the gift of life, while the other ad emphasized the number of lives saved.

 The group that had written about feeling socially excluded was much more likely to prefer the emotional ad, while the other groups preferred the rational ad.

 To test whether the messages would translate into action, the researchers conducted another experiment in which the participants viewed different messages about recycling. The emotional ad stated that “The plastic bottles you recycle today will become a new carpet in the future,” while the rational ad presented facts about the number of recycled bottled needed to make a carpet. The participants who were primed to feel socially excluded were much more likely to recycle the plastic juice bottles they received during the experiment if they had seen the emotional message, but the rational ad was more effective for the other groups.

 These findings offer hope to groups that are at risk of feeling isolated, such as the elderly, disabled, widowed, divorced or people living alone, the researchers say. Policy makers and businesses might have more success helping these groups participate in positive activities if messages focus on visual images and words that arouse emotions, rather than highlighting product benefits, deals and convincing arguments.

 “People who feel excluded may be struggling to take care of themselves, so the goal is to communicate to them in ways that persuade them to make changes that improve their quality of life,” the team concluded.

  So what? I think that this research is important, but perhaps not for the reason that the researchers think it is. Since a flood of recent research has shown that people make decisions on the basis of emotion rather than reason and facts it is tempting to speculate as to the differing emotions that were behind the decisions in these instances. I wish that the experiments could be conducted again with the participants being scanned by fMRI. This would show what areas of the brain were being engaged at the time.

 The other interesting thing about the study is what it says about the huge number of people who are either suffering from loneliness or social rejection—a majority of us at some time or other during any year according to some recent studies (increasingly at work—see an interesting Guardian article here). Following on from this present study, it could be that the current fixation with “alternative facts” is simply that those who reject objective facts are those suffering from a sense of rejection or who are lonely.

 What now? From this research it would seem that we have to present choices to people in language befitting their emotional state. Using data from Google, Facebook etc. I am sure that this will soon be possible.

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Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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