The Sad Cycle of Romantic Rejection

Sorry, guys: For women, being rebuffed by Dr. McDreamy doesn't make Mr. McAverage seem any more appealing.
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(Photo: 360b/Shutterstock)

(Photo: 360b/Shutterstock)

It's every average-looking man's dream. After being rejected by that handsome hunk, that beautiful woman you've been admiring from afar will realize her error in judgment and finally notice you.

A lovely scenario, but newly published research suggests it's highly unlikely.

In two studies, "rejection by an attractive man also led to derogation of, and distancing from, an unattractive man—even when that unattractive man offered acceptance," writes a research team led by University of Toronto psychologist Geoff MacDonald.

The likely reason, the researchers write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, is that accepting the overtures of a "low-status" person "may imply one is of similarly low status," thus exacerbating the pain caused by the initial rejection.

"Being rejected by the attractive man appeared to make participants less willing to affiliate with the unattractive man, and more inclined to evaluate him harshly."

And in the dating world, looks are closely associated with status. Arriving at a social event with an attractive date or mate is an effective way to impress your friends.

MacDonald and his colleagues describe an experiment featuring 126 female University of Toronto undergraduates, all of whom were heterosexual and not in a romantic relationship. They created "dating profiles," which they were told "would be viewed and evaluated by two men they could potentially meet at the end of the experiment."

They then read the men's purported profiles (which were actually created by the researchers, and carefully written to track closely in terms of romantic appeal and responsiveness). Each was paired with a photo—one of a good-looking guy, the other of an unattractive man.

Participants then received feedback from each of the men, indicating whether they wanted to meet. (In reality, they randomly received either a "yes" or "no" from each of the fictional males.) They then expressed whether they were interested in meeting each man, and rated both in terms of "physical attractiveness, perceived level of responsiveness, and romantic appeal."

Not surprisingly, the women who were rejected by one of the men "distanced themselves from and derogated him," as indicated by less interest in meeting him and lower ratings on all three scales. This presumably represented a defensive posture: If he doesn't want me, he can't be that great anyway.

More importantly, "participants who were rejected by the attractive man were also relatively uninterested in meeting the unattractive man, and derogated him even when he was accepting (them)," the researchers write."Being rejected by the attractive man appeared to make participants less willing to affiliate with the unattractive man, and more inclined to evaluate him harshly."

But why? While conceding they don't have direct evidence backing up their thesis, the researchers argue that this rejection allowed the women "to psychologically distance themselves from the stigma of being associated with unattractive others."

As MacDonald told Sage Publications: "What people want is not immediate acceptance per se, but a sense of assurance that the person is acceptable to the sorts of people they want to be connected to."

Or perhaps rejecting the less-appealing suitor allowed the women to re-build the self-esteem lost when they were rejected themselves. In any case, the results show that being rebuffed by one guy does not automatically make one open to the next guy who comes along.

These results were largely replicated in a second, identical experiment featuring 166 female undergraduates. Once again, "Participants were much harsher toward an accepting, unattractive man when the attractive man had been rejecting rather than accepting."

Of course, these were college students. It's conceivable that, as we grow older, we realize status can be conveyed in ways other than physical appearance. Or maybe the prejudices of our social circle become less important, and we begin to realize the opportunity to love another person is more important than the opinions of our peers.

We can hope.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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