Evolution and the fear of rejection-why is the need for inclusion a human universal

by | Mar 16, 2023 | 0 comments

Evolution and the fear of rejection – why is the need for inclusion a human universal?

Paulo Finuras, Ph.D.

Associate Professor & Researcher at ISG Business & Economics School of Lisbon


In this article, I reflect on the importance of belonging to any group and the consequences of ostracization or rejection that our brain always treats as pain and suffering. And this, it seems, happens beyond cultural differences and not because of them. Instead, it has to do with our biology of social primates and has always been a means of survival that highlights the dimension of our social brain.

Therefore, one of our forms of social learning has been through the evaluation of trial and error. We conclude that those who followed a group survived, while those who drifted away, swerved, were rejected, were “eaten,” and eventually won the “Darwin prize.[1]


Inclusion, rejection, social acceptance, social brain, social pain,

  1. Introduction

In this article, I reflect on the importance of belonging to any group and the consequences of ostracization or rejection that our brain always treats as pain and suffering. And this, it seems, happens beyond cultural differences and not because of them. Instead, it has to do with our biology of social primates and has always been a means of survival that highlights the dimension of our social brain.

Therefore, one of our forms of social learning has been through evaluating trial and error. We conclude that those who followed a group survived, while those who drifted away, swerved, or were rejected, were “eaten” and eventually won the “Darwin prize”.

The need for social acceptance has always been fundamental for individual survival. Although sometimes we have more egocentric behavior, it seems to be part of our evolutionary design and our genetic composition, the need to seek to follow and belong “to the group” because belonging to one group not only provides a sense of identity but also translates acceptance by the other. It looks like that’s how we evolved as a species.

It seems that a need and a desire for acceptance and belonging guide a significant part of our behavior. Moreover, there is research that corroborates this idea and even suggests that a significant portion of the emotional reactions of individuals also results from concerns that people have about social rejection, whether real or potential.

Therefore, to realize that there is a strong need for belonging and acceptance is to perceive an inescapable fact of the behavior of our species that, once again, seems to occur beyond the differences between cultures and not because of them.

But, after all, why do individuals’ concerns about their acceptance and social belonging have such a profound and permanent effect, both in terms of thought, behavior, and emotions? This need is likely to result from the fact that ostracism and/or rejection has had serious consequences in terms of the survival and reproduction of our ancestors, contrary to our social nature. Even though it is more mitigated, people today respond negatively to ostracism, isolation, or rejection (Lancaster, 1986).

  1. The problem with ostracism and rejection for humans

I would like to highlight here a unique experiment in 2006 by scientists Ilja van Beest and Kipling D. Williams (2006) that confirms the power of ostracism. These researchers wanted to know if, in any situation, inclusion is always processed by our brain as more positive and rewarding than the feeling of exclusion or ostracization.

In two separate experiences, the authors tried to “induce information” against inclusion and in favor of ostracism (or exclusion) to understand how our brain works in the face of these two fundamental aspects of social life.

Participants in an experiment were invited to play a variant of a game called Cyberball. In the game, with three participants at a time (A, B, and C), both inclusion and exclusion were crossed so that participants could both win and lose money on every ball throw they received.[2]

Fig. 1

Cyberball game experience with and without compensation

Surprisingly, the data suggested that even when being “excluded” meant earning (or keeping) more money than other players; the emotion and feeling unleashed on the subjects were always recorded by the brain as a painful emotion.

Source: Author adaptation.

Fig. 2

Cyberball game experience with and without financial compensation

In fact, several neuroscientists in Italy have found that “social pain” activates the same brain regions as physical pain. The researchers also found that witnessing someone else’s social pain triggered a similar physical empathy response in most test subjects. Social pain means experiences of pain resulting from interpersonal loss, rejection or ostracism by a social group, bullying, humiliation or shame, or even the loss of a loved one. Research shows us that social pain results from activating certain components in physical pain systems. Although the brain does not process emotional pain and physical pain identically, research into neural pathways or circuits suggests that there is a substantial overlap between the experience of physical and social pain. [3]

  1. The research on rejection

Studies conducted using magnetic resonance imaging have shown that when someone is ostracized or rejected, the same region of the brain that activates in situations where individuals experience physical pain is active. Put another way, humans are “designed” to feel pain [4]when they are ostracized, rejected, or excluded from a group. Considering what exclusion could mean in terms of costs for someone, this makes sense, at least from an evolutionary point of view.

In the experience with the game variant in which three players (A, B and C) interact virtually, passing the ball to each other, and where the same players have never met personally (although two of them – A and B – were “partners” of the investigators and are combined to play in a certain way, now including, now excluding the “third” player invited to the experience),  even when, in a situation where, being “excluded” from the game, the “victim” of the experience was rewarded with money gains (i.e., in cases where, even if they did not receive the ball from either of the other two players combined with the investigators, they still received a given reward), when they went to measure the satisfaction and mood of the participants, something very interesting was found: statistical analysis showed that individuals were much more satisfied when they were included in the game (that is, when the other two passed the ball) than when they were excluded, regardless of whether they won or lost money. Therefore, even when placed in a situation where they lost money, the subjects mentioned that they would rather be included and lose money than be excluded and receive it.

  1. Humans as a hypersocial species

As a hypersocial species, we trust and depend on each other to survive and reproduce, which is why we always live in social groups, where acceptance and belonging have always been crucial to us.

In short, because human beings are so dependent on each other and the groups in which they live, ostracism (i.e., being excluded or rejected from the group and the benefits and protection it provides) was, “by default“, always considered a “cost” throughout our evolutionary history and a potentially very high cost, since survival has always depended on acceptance and inclusion in the groups.

Therefore, it should not surprise us that, given each context, the common concerns most felt and more experienced with social acceptance are accompanied by emotions such as shame, guilt, jealousy, envy, hurt, social anxiety and low self-esteem. Among the main reasons for acceptance and belonging are the “exchange” and relational value of someone who shows that he is or can be a “good partner” for a relationship, for exchanges/transactions; physical appearance; to be appreciated; the pride and resources that someone has or may have (that is, to possess what others need).

If by chance, an alien scientist (equivalent to an extra-terrestrial anthropologist) visited and studied us, he would quickly discover that in humans, adaptive psychological mechanisms evolved that made us prone to make efforts in the search for acceptance and belonging to groups. Moreover, this need and this constant search for acceptance is easily seen in the effort invested by individuals, whether to capture attention on their abilities, qualities and resources or in the investment dedicated to their physical and social appearance to be appreciated, which is why it is common to see people exhibit certain behaviors connoted with “success” or to highlight the possession of resources that others may need. Deep down, individuals strive to signal that they are someone others like or will like to relate to.[5]


When acceptance is not achieved, and rejection is given, the answers may vary. For example, if and when individuals do not feel properly valued, respected, recognized, appreciated, or accepted, they may try to insist on increasing their acceptance or assaulting those who reject them or distance themselves from them. “Everything” seems to be preferable, considering that all rejection is recorded internally as pain or suffering (Williams & Sommer, 1997; Baumeister, R., & Leary, R. (1995).

Surely the reason for this stems from the fact that, throughout our evolutionary history, rejection and exclusion have always been more “costly”. In contrast, acceptance and inclusion have always been more “advantageous”. Perhaps, and as a consequence, our brain still has difficulties today in understanding situations in which exclusion can generate benefits or, even when this happens, the benefits can even be valued.

The human brain, implicitly and unconsciously, seems to assume that all exclusion is “onerous”, as it assumes that all sex potentially provides reproduction, even if it does not seek it when it practices it.


Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529

Finuras, P. (2021). Human Affairs. To better understand why we do what we do and the evolutionary psychology that underpins these affairs. Lisboa: Edições Sílabo

Lancaster, B. (1986). Primate social behavior and ostracism. Ethology and Sociobiology, 7(3-4), 215-225. https://doi.org/10.1016/0162-3095(86)90049-X.

Lieberman, M. (2014). Social – Why our brains are wired to connect. New York: Crown Publishers

Smith, E. (2017). The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. Washington. Broadway Books

van Beest, I., & Williams, K. D. (2006). When inclusion costs and ostracism pays, ostracism still hurts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 918-928. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.91.5.918.

Williams, D., & Sommer, L. (1997). Social ostracism by coworkers: Does rejection lead to loafing or compensation? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(7), 693-706. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167297237003.


[1]The Darwin Prize was awarded in 1993 by scientist Wendy Northcutt of Stanford University and is awarded annually to all those who improve the genetic background of our species… removing himself from :).

[2] Of course, participants A and B were “partners” of the researchers.

[3] To know more, check: Giovanni November, Marco Zanon, Giorgia Silani, Empathy for social exclusion involves the sensory-discriminative component of pain: a within-subject fMRI study, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 10, Issue 2, February 2015, Pages 153–164, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsu038.

[4]   In other words, they are considering the benefits of affiliation and avoidance of the costs of rejection and/or ostracism.


Submit a Comment