- People experience social pain when they perceive a relational partner has devalued the relationship.
- Social pain can also result from perceiving damage to self-esteem.
- Perceived relational devaluation is socially painful whether it is realistic or not.
- In many cases, relational devaluation is only in the mind of the perceiver, and does not reflect reality.
Many people define themselves through their successes and failures, whether public or private. You may enjoy a public reputation as a skilled computer analyst, an accomplished musician, or a talented cook. So when you suffer a personal failure, such as failing a test, missing a deadline, or ruining a recipe, will you suffer socially if no one knows about it? The answer may surprise you.
The Sting of Social Pain
Taylor Hudd and David A. Moscovitch (2021) examined the extent to which personal adversity creates social pain, either with or without the devaluation of relationships.[i] They recognize that “social pain” has been conceptualized as “an adaptive neurobiological signal that alerts people to loss or damage in their social networks.” Neuroimaging studies have shown that experiences such as exclusion or rejection activate brain areas also linked to physically painful experiences.
How does it happen? Hudd and Moscovitch note that we generally experience social pain when we perceive that a relational partner has devalued our relationship. However, they also note the existence of other conditions that create social pain that do not include direct threats to “social belongingness.” Specifically, they point out that mistakes, accidents, or personal failures that do not encompass obvious relational devaluation can also cause social pain painful because such experiences damage self-esteem, which they define as “a marker of the self-perceived value we bring to all of our relationships.”
Threat to Self-Esteem
In their research which included 739 online participants, Hudd and Moscovitch found that conditions of personal adversity, both with and without explicit relational devaluation, created a higher degree of social pain than inclusion. They note their findings suggest that even when it is not explicit, relational devaluation can be socially painful because it threatens self-esteem, corroborating the fact that many life experiences, whether independent or relational, are saturated with social significance.
Hudd and Moscovitch note that their findings support the need to examine social pain as a distress signal prompted not only by direct disruptions to social relationships but also by personal failures, even including accidents or mistakes, that can damage self-esteem, even if the event occurs in private. They explain that relational devaluation is an appraisal “conjured in the imagination, where both actual and imagined threats to one's social belongingness can be experienced as one in the same,” which makes them equally painful.
In The Mind of the Perceiver
Like many emotional experiences, rejection or disruption of personal relationships is often in the mind of the imperfect perceiver. Relational partners may never find out about our personal failures, and therefore not be influenced by them. Nonetheless, a subjective feeling of worthlessness may cause people to inaccurately project such personal disapproval onto others. Recognizing this human tendency is the first step to building and maintaining positive, healthy partnerships that are appropriately transparent, but also accurate. We can learn from our mistakes without allowing them to jeopardize our relationships with others.
[i] Hudd, Taylor, and David A. Moscovitch. 2021. “Social Pain and the Role of Imagined Social Consequences: Why Personal Adverse Experiences Elicit Social Pain, with or without Explicit Relational Devaluation.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 95 (July). doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2021.104121.