Research in behavioral science is beginning to establish important connections between human behavior, cognition, and biology. The way people think and what they strive for is fundamentally grounded in complex physiological systems -- systems that have been designed through evolution to help people face everyday challenges that are part of social living. Hormonal systems are designed to help people respond adaptively to particular types of social events, including social threats. Emerging research suggests that the release of particular hormones is associated with a variety of motivated responses to social threat, from unselfish helping behavior to aggression and antisocial behavior. The proposed work will advance this general idea.

One major type of social threat that humans regularly face is social exclusion. Exclusion can take forms such as peer rejection, ostracism from a social or work group, or romantic rejection. Regardless of where exclusion originates, research shows that it evokes a range of motivated psychological and behavioral responses. Some of those responses are highly favorable. For instance, sometimes rejected people display increased interest in making friends and behave in kind and generous ways, presumably to regain social acceptance. Other responses to social threat, however, are highly destructive. Rejection can elicit aggression, a sense of meaninglessness, depression, social withdrawal, and even suicide.

Many studies have now investigated psychological and behavioral responses to exclusion. Yet very little work has sought to uncover the basic physiological mechanisms underlying those responses. Understanding those physiological mechanisms is a critical part of identifying the broader processes that lead people to behave constructively or destructively in response to rejection. The proposed work will examine a variety of hormonal responses to social exclusion because such responses provide a window into people's immediate motivational states and tendencies to perform prosocial and antisocial behaviors. Past research suggests that progesterone, cortisol, and testosterone (hormones associated with social bonding, stress, and social dominance, respectively) play a critical role in determining people's responses to exclusion. The proposed experiments will examine the effect of exclusion on hormones such as progesterone, cortisol, and testosterone. Studies will also evaluate the extent to which the release of these hormones following rejection promotes specific prosocial and antisocial behaviors including altruism, affiliation, aggression, and social withdrawal.

Understanding when, why, and for whom positive and negative social behavior occurs is a critical step toward encouraging or modifying such behaviors. Consequently, this research program has implications for improving societal outcomes within a range of personal, social, and organizational contexts, from marriages to school and work settings. The research will also foster deep connections between psychology, cognitive science, and behavioral neuroscience -- research areas that heretofore have had relatively little contact. Finally, the execution of this research will involve the training of several graduate and undergraduate students, many of whom are from groups that are presently underrepresented in science careers.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Sally Dickerson
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Florida State University
United States
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