skip to Main Content

Why fear of rejection prevents us from making wise decisions

When you have a disagreement with your boss, how do you respond? Do you consider that you might be at fault and try to consider the other’s viewpoint? Or do you dig in your heels and demand that other people come around to your way of thinking? In other words, do you make wise, practical decisions, or are you prone to being stubborn and petty in the face of criticism?

As I describe in my recent book, The Intelligence Trap, a whole new field of “evidence-based wisdom” aims to measure these kinds of differences in people’s thinking and behaviour, and to understand the reasons for them. Taking inspiration from philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates, these psychologists argue that wise reasoning involves five qualities: intellectual humility (recognising the limits of your knowledge); a recognition of uncertainty about how a situation may unfold; a recognition of others’ perspectives; the use of an outsider’s viewpoint; and the search for compromise. There are now various measures of these ways of thinking, including self-report questionnaires and more involved laboratory experiments. And researchers have begun to study how wise reasoning is related to other individual differences: for instance, these measures appear to predict well-being above and beyond other cognitive traits (like IQ).

Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo has been at the forefront of this work, and his latest paper, available as a preprint at PsyArxiv, examines whether people’s level of “rejection sensitivity” might determine some of the individual differences in wisdom. Working with Anna Dorfman and Harrison Oakes, he hypothesised that the threat of rejection could lead some people to become more self-defensive as they strive to protect their own ego, potentially reducing their willingness to accept their mistakes, see others’ viewpoints, and look for compromise — their capacity for wise reasoning, in other words.

To find out if that were true, the trio conducted a series of six experiments that asked a total of 1,617 participants to consider how they would respond to various workplace conflicts, such as excessive criticism from a colleague. After they had thought through their reactions, the participants were asked to rate how much they had engaged in each of the five qualities of wise reasoning (such as intellectual humility) described above.

They were also tested on more general “rejection sensitivity”, using a standard questionnaire. Participants were asked to rate how anxious they would feel before inviting family members to an important event, in case they refused to come, and in various other situations.

As Grossmann’s team had hypothesised, the people who were more sensitive to rejection did indeed tend to score lower on all five of the qualities associated with wise reasoning when faced with the conflict: they reacted in a more defensive and closed-minded way, for instance, and were less intellectually humble. Interestingly, this was true even when the researchers controlled for personality traits, including neuroticism and narcissism — the fear of rejection was an independent factor in explaining the differences in wise reasoning. Given the importance of wise reasoning in resolving conflicts, these results also suggest that people who fear rejection may be less likely to find an amicable resolution to these kinds of situations.

When designing the scenarios, the team had also tried to manipulate the power dynamics within the conflict — some participants were told they were a supervisor, for instance, while others were a subordinate. Perhaps a sense of power makes you more ego-centric, the researchers theorised, which would mean you are less wise. However, the participants’ position with the company had little effect on the overall scores of wise reasoning, though it did influence some of the individual qualities. Imagining themselves in a more subordinate position increased people’s intellectual humility, for instance, while the high-flyers were more likely to see the other’s perspective. Your boss may seem aloof and uninterested in your feelings, but perhaps they are more capable of seeing your viewpoint than you think.

Like much of the research on evidence-based wisdom, this new finding gives us plenty of food for thought about our own actions and the dynamics of our relationships. It remains to be seen whether there are ways to overcome our sensitivity to rejection to increase our wisdom in these difficult situations. For those of us who struggle to take knocks to our confidence, old habits die hard.

Grossmann’s previous research suggests it should be possible, though. As I’ve written for Research Digest previously, a technique called “self-distancing”, in which you describe your dilemma in the third person (“David was angry that…”), can help us to become less immersed in the feelings of threat or upset, which allows us to take a slightly more dispassionate attitude — almost as if we are talking through someone else’s problem, rather than our own. You may feel like Elmo or even Donald Trump, but that slight detachment encourages more open-minded and humble thinking, leading to higher scores on the wise reasoning tests.

Future research may suggest other ways of dealing with the fear of rejection, to reduce self-defensive and closed-minded behaviour during conflict. For now, the best approach would be to take a deep breath and try to advise yourself as if you were your best friend.

Rejection sensitivity hurts your open mind: Effects of rejection sensitivity and power position for wise reasoning in workplace conflicts [this study is a preprint, meaning that it has yet to be subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version on which this report was based]

Post written by David Robson (@d_a_robson) for the BPS Research Digest. David is a writer based in Barcelona and London. His first book, The Intelligence Trap, which examines our most common thinking errors and how to avoid them, was published earlier this year.