Softening Bad News

Carefully articulated rebuffs can help those rejected, research shows
Wednesday, August 30, 2017

No one likes to be rejected, but there might be ways to remove some of the sting, according to research by ILR Assistant Professor Emily Zitek and Sebastian Deri M.S. ’16.

The pair authored an article titled, “Did You Reject Me for Someone Else? Rejections That are Comparative Feel Worse,” published Aug. 26 in the journal of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Zitek and Deri devised four studies in which subjects experienced, remembered or imagined various types of rejections, including rejections from helping someone complete a task, and rejections in romantic and job hiring scenarios.

The researchers consistently found people felt worse if they were rejected in favor of someone else, versus being rejected in favor of no one (e.g., a romantic partner who decided to be single or a job search resulting in no hires).

“The fact that this effect appeared across several different designs and experimental contexts suggests it is a robust phenomenon,” according to Zitek and Deri, a doctoral student in Cornell’s Psychology Department.

In the first study, 108 volunteers were garnered from passersby at busy intersections on or near the Cornell campus. The second study was comprised of 97 undergraduate students in an introductory social sciences class. In both studies, subjects were not chosen to help complete a
task, and participants felt worse if their rejector chose to work with another person as opposed to if their rejector chose to work alone.

The third and fourth studies used about 200 workers each from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. These subjects were asked to recall rejections from their past or imagine receiving a text message informing them that a person they were dating no longer wanted to date them, with the rejector either choosing someone else instead or not.

Zitek and Deri theorize that the difference in reactions to the two rejections is driven by a deep-seated need to belong in social groups, which is more threatened by a rejection for someone else.

“Our results suggest some advice to anyone in the business of rejecting others who is interested in minimizing the bad feelings their rejections might cause,” the authors write. If no one was chosen, say so. Keep references to the chosen candidate to a minimum.

“For example, college rejection letters often emphasize that rejected applicants were not selected because of the extraordinary talent possessed by the sea of other applicants,” Zitek and Deri write. “While attempting to make rejectees feel better by making the process seem meritorious, this justification -- emphasizing the comparative nature of the rejection -- likely has the ironic consequence of making applicants feel worse than if it had not been included at all.”

If there’s a way to increase the rejected person’s sense of belonging, do it, Zitek and Deri said.

“For example, if a manager hires one job candidate over another, it may help to tell the rejected candidate that they are still grateful for the opportunity to have met them, are glad to be in the same field as they are and look forward to future encounters,” the researchers suggest.