Why rejection physically hurts?

On the theme of neuro-social-science: I regularly go off these days about how we are on the cusp of a revolution in the social sciences. In my more hyperbolic moments, I go on to insist that this revolution will be similar to the one staged by Newton in physics. The social “sciences” will become more scientific as new technologies such as brain imaging lead to better understandings of intentional behavior. (I myself don’t think that results ushered in by these changes will be necessarily all good for politics.) Below, I mentioned one study that had gone a long way to explain why punishers are willing to punish. Here’s another which offers evidence of the neurophysiological mechanism that makes social exclusion very effective.

A neuroimaging study examined the neural correlates of social exclusion and tested the hypothesis that the brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical pain. Participants were scanned while playing a virtual balltossing game in which they were ultimately excluded. Paralleling results from physical pain studies, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was more active during exclusion than during inclusion and correlated positively with self-reported distress. Right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC) was active during exclusion and correlated negatively with self-reported distress. ACC changes mediated the RVPFC-distress correlation, suggesting that RVPFC regulates the distress of social exclusion by disrupting ACC activity.

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). “Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion.” Science, 302, 290-292