According to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, self-esteem moderates the psychological and hormonal response to interpersonal rejection.
The study was conducted by Maire B. Ford of the Loyola Marymount University and Nancy L. Collins of the University of California. It was published in 2010.
For their study, Ford and Collins recruited 39 female and 39 male single college students. These students initially completed a questionnaire designed to assess their personality traits, including self-esteem, and basic demographic information. Then, the students wrote a personal description and had their picture taken, which they were told was going to be shown to another participant in the following session of the study.
As Ford and Collins explain, in the second session, “participants were led to believe that they would be participating in a 10-minute online chat with an opposite-sex participant who was ostensibly working in a different room. First, they were asked to read about the other participant and view his or her photo, and they were led to believe that the other participant was also reading about them.”
The participants were not actually viewing another participants picture and information, but instead viewed a standardized set of materials.
After ten minutes, the participant was told that there would be no online chat with the other participant.
One group of participants were told that there would be no online chat because the other participant “chose not to continue with the experiment” while the other group of participants, which acted the control group, were told that the other participant could not continue because he or she was very sick.
The first group of participants received an intentionally ambiguous reason for the other participants unwillingness to continue the study “to provide room for subjective construal.”
Before and after being rejected, the participants of the study rated their own interpersonal qualities and the interpersonal qualities of the participant they were supposed to chat with. They also rated their own mood and were questioned as to why the other participant could not continue with the study.
In numerous times throughout the study, the participants provided salvia samples used to measure their level of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone involved in preparing the body for stressful experiences.
As Ford and Collins explain, “overall, the results showed dramatic differences between high self-esteem and low self-esteem individuals in their psychological and neuroendocrine responses to ambiguous interpersonal rejection.”
Those with low self-esteem were much more likely to blame themselves for being rejected than those with high self-esteem. They were also more likely to downgrade or criticize the other participants interpersonal qualities.
The changes in cortisol levels in response to being rejected were also different. Those with low self-esteem showed higher levels of cortisol after being rejected than those with high self-esteem, indicating a greater physiological stress response from those with low self-esteem.
According to Ford and Collins, “these findings provide clear evidence that individuals with low self-esteem experience even mild interpersonal rejection as a meaningful threat to their social worth.” Those with high self-esteem, on the other hand, “showed no declines in social self-appraisals, made external rather than internal attributions for the rejection, and showed no evidence of partner derogation.”
Although in this study those with higher levels of self-esteem were protected from the effects of interpersonal rejection, as Ford and Collins note, this may not always be the case.
“Although high self-esteem individuals in the current study were clearly buffered from the threat of of mild rejection cues, we believe it would be inaccurate to conclude that they will or should always be immune to the pain of social rejection. Indeed, individuals with high self-esteem are motivated to seek social inclusion and are likely to experience declines in well-being […] in response to more potent rejection experiences, especially from valued relationship partners.”
Ford, M.B. & Collins, N.L. (2010). Self-esteem moderates neuroendocrine and psychological responses to interpersonal rejection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 98, No 3: 405-419.