Relationship Rejections: The Psychological Aspect – An Interview With Professor Downey (Part 1)
Transcript of Interview:
Q: How did you get interested in rejection sensitivity?
A: I was very interested initially in what triggered people to become violent against their loved ones and it was a very focused in chemical experiences I was working with children who had been abused or neglected from my dissertation at Cornell. What I wanted to know about the effects of abuse was what kind of things triggered people who had been abused and who had never expected to become abusive themselves to engage in violence against their loved ones.
So where that idea comes from was that when I was doing my dissertation, I talked to a lot of mothers who were in abusive situations and who disciplined their kids in ways that welcomed the attention of child protective services and what they told me in conversations was that many of them had grown up in abusive families and never expected to do this to their own kids. I was very interested in what it was that abuse conveys to people, children in particular. That’s how I got interested in the idea that it was a sense that you were the kind of person who could be rejected because we really need to as humans to be socially connected.
We depend all through our lives for our health and well being especially very early on and I would say probably again at the end of our lives. We depend on others and we can’t survive without it. So it seems to me that evolutionary we sort of had this built in need to be accepted and what our threats are that we need to be socially connected to others and rejection is a threat to that for some people who know what it’s like to be rejected, they become sensitized to rejection in the same way we become sensitized to other threats to us. So for some people the prospect of rejection is like having a gun pointed at them. Its like life or death. That’s a very extreme case but you find with children who have been abused they interpret the experiences of others are that how others behave to them say a teacher.
I worked in a school for emotionally disturbed preschooler and a teacher quit because it was too emotionally disturbing to her to be working with kids who had experienced such pain in heir lives already so she said she couldn’t handle it but she disappeared one day and the kids thought that she didn’t like them and they were really upset by it. So in a sense you can develop a world view that rejection is a huge threat to you and you can be sensitive to cues of rejection and interpret the behaviors of others as a personal rejection and that is very very distressing and what I was interested in because people often respond to rejection by becoming deregulated because it’s a huge threat particular response I was interested in was becoming violent. You read a lot of newspaper articles how relationship breakups can end in violence.
I also work with women who are in prison for martyr and when I talk to them about why they did why they did it was around either protecting their relationships with somebody who wanted them to get involved with something that ended violently or because they had experienced a traumatic rejection a rejection of themselves the kind of person they thought they were. So that’s how I got interested.
And then I came to Columbia and having worked with it in extreme ends I became just interested in trying to understand what role it played in college students and their romantic relationships and I was particularly interested in understanding the link between rejection sensitivity which uses the expectation that you would be rejection rather than accepted and this is something of great consequence to you. So the sense of threat that you expect or that you get in situations that you might be accepted or rejected. I became interested in whether this played a role in romantic relationships and in violence and dating relationships.
A lot of the research that was done on violence in dating relationships up to then had been done on women who were in marriages and had kids and asked questions on why they don’t leave there could be a lot of different reasons they might not leave because have no where to go or couldn’t economically do it or this was their kids father. But what I wanted to study this in college students because they are in this stage in their lives where it’s like Columbia there’s people who have achieved an awful lot. They don’t have to stay in relationships for econ reasons whether they are men or women. They’re not married with kids.
What I found was in the initial research that I did with Scott Feldman who was an undergraduate at the time and became a therapist. We did a little study of what the prevalence of dating violence was and this was not like serious violence. It’s pushing and shoveling and slapping and it’s not the kind of stuff you get when you read newspapers. Nonetheless it’s the kind of behavior that’s not a good way to solve problems and it can escalate into others. So we found a pretty high level amongst Columbia students. In the initial study it was about 30% but in subsequent studies it was more like 12% and it was sometimes one incident. But the thing that was interesting to me was that if it was going to happen it was going to happen within the first 2 months and people still stayed in relationships so a lot of what we did was to try and look at if rejection sensitivity predicted violence in college students and it did amongst men who were very heavily invested in relationships and what we found amongst women – we didn’t find violence we found hostility and we’ve done a lot of research that looks at the extent to which rejection sensitive makes you vulnerable to be very angry and hostile following a rejection. We have them expect to encounter a prospective dating partner and are told that their partner doesn’t want to meet them and that’s a rejection or that their partner doesn’t have the time that there was some screw-up on our part and there’s not a good time match.
So what we find is that women who were rejection sensitive are particularly likely to become hostile when this happens. We did this study recently that was trying to explain this paradox – why people will do one thing and do something that drives people away and do anything to keep them. We did a study where we brought people in and it only worked for women. We had them describe themselves to us as if we were an online dating service. We had questionnaires about their attitudes and preferences and then we told them we’d find a match for them. We found pseudo matches and we had them come back and we then told them to describe themselves to their prospective partner. We looked at the extent to which there were differences in what they told us and what they told their partner. What we wanted to see was were highly rejected sensitive people women more likely to change themselves to effectively sacrifice important aspects of themselves in order to make a good impression on the partner. Which is saying that I will do whatever it takes to keep this partner or in this case whatever it takes to get this partner. To the extent that they do that are they more likely to be hostile afterwards when they get rejected?
The hostility or aggression that you see when they get rejected really comes out as a result of the sacrifices of themselves they have made in order to preserve the relationship so it’s kind of like a reaction to feeling betrayed. Even though this partner in our study didn’t know anything about their great sacrifices, they still have done that. I’ve tried my hardest to accommodate and given up important aspects of myself then I get rejected then I get hostile. That’s kind of where we are and what we’re looking at in women.
I started off looking at violence in men as perpetrators. In fact we’ve mainly looked at violence that women who are highly rejection sensitive enact. So we’ve also done other studies that don’t look at violence as an outcome but look at what happens when you get rejected because of other aspects of yourself other than your personal relationships. We had a very interesting study where we had women coming in and undergraduates and they were told this was a study of how Columbia gives advice – how the faculty give advice to students. They were going to meet a professor who we gave them a description of some stereotypically high status male professor who is the kind of person who could help you with your career. This was sort of a superstar but also somebody who was viewed as not very welcoming to students. They were going to have an essay evaluated by this person. The feedback that they got was kind of harsh although some students identified it as good positive feedback. They were asked to when they got this feedback how likely would they take the opportunity to meet the professor again to get feedback in person on their essay with the idea that it would help them improve their essay for a competition they were entered into and get published.
They perceive the feedback as biased because of their gender and were less likely to say that they would go and meet the professor again. You feel that something about you as a person a status characteristic means that you will get discriminated against and that that can affect your behavior in ways that make it more difficult for you to succeed. So we look at rejection in different forms because of different reasons and look at in relation to different outcomes. It’s all over the place. I’ve also been looking at it in relation to clinical disorders where people are very high in rejection sensitivity such as borderline personality disorder and a void in personality disorder, which are extreme. The behavior of people with these disorders has very extreme reactions to rejection.