Rejection by Peers May Lead to Violent Behavior
By Charnicia E. Huggins
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - For years researchers have debated whether
social exclusion and rejection caused aggressiveness or resulted from it.
Now new study findings, as well as anecdotal evidence from the recent series
of school shootings across America, suggest that social exclusion or
rejection may indeed lead to aggressive behavior, as well as violence.
"Thus, children who might not have been aggressive otherwise will often
become aggressive after they have been rejected by their peers," lead study
author Dr. Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University in California told
"Almost all of the school shooting incidents, including Columbine, involved
rejection by peers," Twenge said. "This research suggests that social
rejection may have played a crucial role in the violence perpetrated by the
The researchers performed a series of experiments in which undergraduate
students, divided into pairs of two, completed personality questionnaires
and essays. The students arbitrarily received bogus negative or positive
feedback on both their personality tests and their essays, but were told
that the essays were evaluated by their respective partners. Each individual
was then asked to evaluate their partner, who was supposedly applying for a
competitive job as a research assistant.
Students who were told that the scores from their personality tests
indicated that they would "end up alone later in life," and that their
essay was "one of the worst" the reader had read, reciprocated by giving
their partners an extremely low rating—an average 26 on a scale of 10 to
100, the researchers report.
"Anticipating a lonely future made people sharply more harsh and aggressive
toward someone who had recently criticized them," the authors write in the
December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (news -
In contrast, students who received negative feedback about their essay but
were told that they would either have "rewarding relationships throughout
life," or that they were "likely to be accident prone later in life,"
gave their partners a more neutral rating.
However, those who were told they had written very good essays tended to
reciprocate by giving their partners high ratings, even when they were given
negative predictions about their future, the researchers report.
In a separate series of experiments, Twenge’s team measured how rejection
affected aggression. Students participated in a group "get acquainted"
exercise, and were then asked to choose the two people they would want to
work with on an individual basis. Half of the students were then told that
no one wanted to work with them; the rest were told everyone wanted to work
The researchers then had the students play a computer game, in which the
winner was able to blast the loser with unpleasant noise. The students were
told they were playing against another person, but in fact the computer was
mimicking the response of another player.
By giving the students a weapon that could hurt someone—the loud noise—the
researchers attempted to make their conclusions applicable to the school
shootings and other violent behaviors observed outside the laboratory.
The rejected students exhibited more aggression than their peers, study
findings indicate. They tended to blast noise that was of a higher intensity
and longer duration, even when they were told it would not be directed
towards the individuals who rejected them from the group assignment, the
"Even innocent bystanders are targets of the aggression of rejected
people," Twenge said. "This is very similar to the school shootings, in
which the perpetrators marched into their schools and killed innocent people
who had nothing to do with the rejection."
In light of the findings, Twenge stressed the need for adults to intervene
when they see students being bullied, rejected, or cruelly teased.
"Although the rejected child should be taught not to be aggressive, it is
also important to start at the source and try to emphasize to children how
much bullying and cruel teasing hurts," Twenge said.
SOURCE: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2001;201:1058-1069.