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Rejection and neuroscience

September 12, 2019

This article is for aspiring entrepreneurs. As entrepreneurs, we experienced cataclysmic as well as ridiculous rejections. Here is what we learned.

Pain is not a choice

Imagine you are in the university library. You are approaching students, asking if they want to test your app. The girl you just approached looks up from her laptop. The keyboard stops clacking. She listens for a second. Then she frowns. Her lips turn into a thin line. You have seen this face before. Disapproval. You start wringing your hands. ‘I am chatting with my boyfriend,’ she says. Then she looks down on her laptop again. You apologise, turn around, and rush out of the room, hoping nobody saw this.

She rejected you. Will you feel hurt?

The brain

You will feel hurt. It is inevitable, and we know this because neuroscientists have been investigating this topic.

Your brain is made up of different regions. Each region is responsible for something else. If someone kicks you in the shin, a particular region in your brain will activate. Your shin will hurt. Turns out, whether someone kicks you or rejects you, largely the same regions will activate (Kross et al, 2010). The pain you feel when rejected is inevitable just as the pain you feel when kicked is inevitable.

We are unequal

How you react to rejection depends on your genes and your environment.

Let’s consider your environment first. Imagine you are rich, successful, and have many friends. Imagine you already launched a successful app, sold it for a few millions, and are now working on your second. If someone rejects you now, you’ll stomach it. You may even laugh about. Hey, why should you care? You are a millionaire.

But let’s rewind a few years when you were working on your first app. You were living in a flat-share with five other people and only one bathroom. You ate cornflakes out of the box. Sometimes you stole your neighbours Wi-Fi because yours didn’t work. Remember when people rejected you then? That hurt much more, didn’t it?

Let’s talk about genes now. Standard medical textbooks will tell you that some individuals experience more pain and need more morphine during treatment. Such individuals have a particular mutation of a gene called “OPRM1”.

Neuroscientists wondered if such people also hurt more if rejected. So they took subjects and asked them to toss balls back and forth with two research assistants. After a while, the research assistants would exclude the subject and only toss the ball to the other assistant. Neuroscientists then measured brain activity. Those with the OPRM1 gene showed greater brain activity and reported feeling hurt more (Way et al, 2009).

In other words, how much you hurt when rejected depends on some things you cannot control.

Your brain notices

Remember the girl from the library at the beginning of our story? Can you picture the disapproval on her face? She probably thought you were hitting on her.

Anyway, it brings us to another topic. Many will reject you politely. Some won’t. You will remember that ones that won’t, because your brain was made to notice.

Burklund et al (2007), for example, showed images of disapproving faces to subjects. Then they scanned brains. There is a region in your brain called the “amygdala”. One of its main functions is to make you feel fear. Disapproving faces activate your amygdala. Your brain thinks you should fear disapproval.

The choice you can make

We said pain is inevitable. That remains true. In a sense, however, it is a choice. And we want to tell you why.

You cannot choose to do fifty push-ups right now. You probably don’t have the muscle for that. But you can choose to hit the gym tomorrow, so that you can do fifty push-ups in a year. A muscle will grow if you stress it sufficiently. Don’t stress it, and it will never grow. Stress it too much, and it will atrophy. The same principle applies to rejection.

You can start small, e.g. ask people to look at your landing page. Some will reject you. After a while, you can attempt bigger things. Remember, however, that you need to find the right amount of rejection for you.


Burklund, L., Eisenberger, N., and Liberman, M. (2007), ‘The face of rejection: rejection sensitivity moderates dorsal anterior cingulate activity to disapproving facial expressions.’ Society of Neuroscience. 2(3–4), 238–258.

Kross, E., Berman, M., Mischel, W., Smith, E., and Wager, T. (2011), ‘Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain.’ PNAS. 108(15), 6270–6275.

Way, B., Taylor, S., and Eisenberger, N. ( 2009 ), ‘Variation in the mu-opioid receptor gene (OPRM1) is associated with dispositional and neural sensitivity to social rejection.’ PNAS. 106(35), 15079–15084.

About this blog

Poor Alexander is a website that helps job applicants do well in interviews. Here we write about interviews, CVs, employment, money, and psychology. Our articles are based on the primary research we do, the literature we review, and our own experience.

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