Geraldine Downey has spent most of her life contending with rejection. Not her own, happily. As a professor and onetime chair of the psychology department, she studies the ramifications of rejection on individuals and members of various groups.
Everyone experiences rejection, of course. But Downey was interested in a particular kind now known as “rejection sensitivity.” While an undergraduate at University College, Dublin, the Irish-born Downey was looking for what could be a predictor of interpersonal violence. “I was trying to use it as a way of explaining why people tended to be particularly violent to those that they loved,” she said recently. “People rejected by those close to them feel particularly threatened and can lash out.”
She developed a model to explain why people who worry most about rejection from their loved ones act out in response to rejection cues, often to their own detriment. Applying it beyond personal relationships, she delved into the rejection sensitivities of undergraduates, minority groups and women, and found herself looking into the notion of diversity itself.
From 2007 to 2009 she was the University’s vice provost for diversity initiatives, a post Columbia had created several years earlier to underscore its commitment to that goal. She has since served as vice dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and later as dean of social sciences. Downey returned to teaching full time in July.
Q. How did you find your way into this line of research?
When I finished my B.S. in Dublin I was working on a project involving kids on probation. I became interested in why some became violent as adolescents, which led me to look at family circumstances. There was a significant association between being abused or neglected and ending up a violent juvenile delinquent, and also an association with coming from a very disadvantaged area. When I did my dissertation, I looked into what it might be that abuse or neglect communicates to children. I studied in the very rural, poor areas around Cornell University, where there were very high rates of abuse and neglect. It turned out that many of the mothers had come from abusive situations themselves, so it was an intergenerational thing. They never expected or viewed themselves as getting into abusive relationships, or abusing or neglecting their own kids. I became interested in the idea that different forms of maltreament communicate a sense of rejection and sensitize people to rejection.
Q. Where did that take you?
I started working in prisons in Michigan with mothers who were incarcerated, and many expressed feeling a sense of rejection as a result of repeated exposure to family neglect and abuse, often in the context of poverty. In essence, they came from rejected groups and were rejected within their own families, which led me to the idea of rejection sensitivity. At first I studied it as a projector of interpersonal violence, trying to use it to explain why people were particularly violent to those that they loved. I was very interested in the idea that when people who are trying to get accepted are met with rejection, it really makes them feel violent. It’s not rejection by a stranger; it’s a threat to them as an individual. Feeling angry following rejection is typical. Violence is likely to occur in response to extreme rejection when that is how rejection has been communicated during childhood.
Q. Does everybody have rejection sensitivity in some ways?
As in many things, rejection sensitivity is good in moderation. It turns out that people who are very low in it miss important social cues. If you do have it, you can pick up whether you’ve done or said something that’s having a negative effect on another person and then you can adjust. It’s being able to pick up and respond to how other people are responding to you. It’s a good thing so long as you don’t see too much negativity in others’ responses. However, if you are going into a new situation, it’s much better to expect acceptance than to expect rejection; if you’re more confident, you end up getting accepted more.
Q. Since everybody experiences rejection, have you identified those who cope well with it?
What we’ve found is that people who are good at self-regulation—who can delay their response until they’ve processed something, and who can think about how there might be alternative explanations for how someone is reacting to them—can think about how there might be different ways to handle a potentially difficult situation or even be able to turn it around. So what we found is that people who are good at self-control, or good at delay of gratification, don’t show the negative effects of rejection sensitivity.
Q. How did you go from studying groups that were disadvantaged within their families and communities to looking at the behavior of undergraduates?
By the time I got to Columbia, I was interested in a more general question of why people stay in troubled romantic relationships. Undergraduates were a good way to look into that. They have a very advantaged education, yet some successful students here were getting into strained and troubled relationships. So I started to look at violence and hostility in dating relationships. I identified a particular kind of neglect that is conducive to feeling sensitive to rejection, not so much physical forms of neglect and abuse as emotional abuse. It starts with children who experience parental acceptance as long as they’re doing whatever the family wants them to do. But if they’re doing things that the parent doesn’t approve of, they get rejected. That sort of emotional neglect and abuse can create a lot of vulnerability for people when they get into romantic relationships because everybody wants to get accepted. But if they are in situations where being accepted becomes more important than being safe, they may put up with emotional or physical abuse in relationships even if they know that this is not how people should be treated. This type of sensitivity can also be biological in origin or can develop as a result of rejection outside the family.
Q. Can rejection sensitivity be a positive thing?
In any new situation you have to balance the motivation to be accepted with the risk of being rejected. People typically have two social goals: One is to avoid rejection and the other is to gain acceptance. Nobody likes rejection, but anybody who gets to advanced-level education or gets a job has to deal with rejection, and sometimes it’s going to be fair and sometimes it’s not. Being accepted in social relationships is not an entitlement, and there may be a kind of randomness to it. But there are also situations where people are systematically not treated as well as others. And I think that that poses a particularly difficult dilemma because it’s not anything about you as a person, it’s just because you’re a member of a particular group. You’re not even being seen as an individual. And how do you cope with that? I think that type of rejection can be particularly hurtful.
Q. Is that what led to your interest in diversity in academia?
I was very interested in families that are generally accepting and inclusive, but my students asked why we were not studying how institutions can make people feel rejected. This led us to do a small study in which we asked students to describe experiences they might have had at Columbia where they felt rejected because of membership in a particular group or category. We got into studying African Americans because that was the group that identified rejection most often as part of their experience at Columbia. I should emphasize that the overall number of racially discriminatory events was small. The pilot study in my lab focused on how students develop and cope with sensitivity to rejection because of a status characteristic, initially race and more recently gender.
Q. Can you explain, perhaps to those who don’t see the value of diversity, what its advantages are?
There’s evidence that more diverse groups solve problems better. Katherine Phillips in the Columbia Business School has done some of this research. When people are asked about their perceptions of working in a diverse group, they feel that it is less effective, and the experience may be uncomfortable. However, the results are better as measured by the outcome of particular tasks. It’s well established that even if everybody in a group is excellent at one thing, the group will be better as a whole by adding a new person who’s good at something else. Having different perspectives also allows for more flexibility. One of the things that’s very well known in work with children is that the more ways they can think of to solve the same problem, the better they relate to their peers, the better they function, the better they solve real problems. People get this important ability by being exposed to different solutions, different skill sets or different backgrounds. If you just hang around with the same people all the time, you won’t be as nimble a thinker. And then when you hit up against real problems you don’t have the kind of flexibility of thinking that helps you get through them.
Q. Columbia has thousands of students starting here in a few days, many for the first time. What insights or advice do you have for them?
We did a big study of about 600 incoming students over two years and followed them for their four years of college. When people come in, they’re more sensitive to rejection at the beginning than they are at the end of the first year. At these times of transitions where people are going into new social situations, where they’re going to be evaluated by teachers, peers and potential dating partners, sensitivity to rejection goes up. And then the average decreases for people over time. I also think people who have high rejection sensitivity have a harder time. For example, they’re less likely to get into romantic relationships than those who expect acceptance. But over time that difference goes away. And for some students who were sensitive to rejection from peers, or experienced peer rejection in high school, the move to college can be a good thing. They’re more likely to find people who share common and valued interests. And that’s always a good thing because there are opportunities to gain acceptance and break with their past reputations among their peers.
—Interview by Bridget O'Brian