The Bitter Pill of Rejection

Nathan DeWall's research reveals that the active ingredient in over-the-counter painkillers may blunt social pain.

by Kami Rice
Photo by Lee Thomas

Nathan DeWall found his way to social psychology partly because of frugality. The accidental journey into this academic field began when DeWall almost didn’t go to college at all because he just wanted to play music. As the son of musicians, that wasn’t as far-fetched an idea as it would be in other families in his hometown of Hastings, Nebraska. In the end, though, he headed down the college path but chose St. Olaf College in Minnesota for their strong music program.

His introduction to psychology came, appropriately enough, in an Intro to Psychology class. He enjoyed the class and earned a decent grade in it. He had always liked people, after all, and it was fun to learn about how people work. Around this time one of his sisters, who also attended St. Olaf, took a social psychology class. DeWall decided to follow her footsteps into that psychology class, too, so he could borrow her books and save a bunch of money.

That class “completely changed how I thought about myself and other people,” said DeWall. He could no longer rely on stereotypes or simplistic depictions of people. “I now had to take into account the power of the social situation in their lives.”

As he turned in his final exam to the professor, Chuck Huff, DeWall asked if he could study something more in social psychology, thinking Huff would suggest another book to read. Instead, Huff said, “You can get a Ph.D. in this,” and began pulling DeWall in to assist with research. DeWall loved it.

After receiving an interdisciplinary master’s degree in the social sciences from the University of Chicago and a master’s and doctoral degree in experimental social psychology from Florida State University, DeWall took up his post at UK in the fall of 2007. “Imagine the best job you can have and multiply it by 10, and that’s what I’ve got,” he said enthusiastically of his work.

Among the numerous reasons for his enthusiasm is the way his job rewards curiosity. DeWall’s research follows three primary interrelated lines of inquiry: social rejection and loneliness; aggression and violence; and self-control/impulse-control.

Recently, DeWall noticed that people use the same words to describe both physical pain and social pain, such as the pain of rejection. He also noticed an overlap in physical behaviors in response to both physical and social injury. He began to wonder about the similarity between the neural mechanisms at work in both types of pain, further wondering if numbing people to physical pain would also numb them to social pain. To DeWall’s surprise, he discovered that no one had researched this question before.

So he and his research team investigated. As noted in their study published in the journal Psychological Science, they found that acetaminophen, the active ingredient in over-the-counter painkillers like Tylenol, may blunt social pain just as it does physical pain.

According to the academic paper detailing the experiments: “…findings suggest that at least temporary mitigation of social pain-related distress may be achieved by means of an over-the-counter painkiller that is normally used for physical aches and pains…. Furthermore, many studies have shown that being rejected can trigger aggressive and antisocial behavior, which could lead to further complications in social life…. If acetaminophen reduces the distress of rejection, the antisocial behavioral consequences of rejection may be reduced as well.”

Researchers aren’t yet encouraging people to address all their social ills with a dose of pain reliever, but DeWall says this research may be able to help the world understand how big a deal rejection is. People who suffer rejection often suffer tremendously. Social rejection even impacts physical health. Ultimately, the goal is less about treating rejection with acetaminophen and more about creating environments where people don’t experience rejection. For now, it’s still much more socially acceptable for someone to talk about the physical pain of a broken arm than it is to talk about pain from social sources.

As much as DeWall enjoys responding to his natural curiosity and his natural interest in people through such research as this, he also loves teaching. “Teaching is great, and it’s really the immediate gratification, the buzz you get from seeing a student’s eyes light up when they learn something they never considered before. It’s awesome.” He enjoys mentoring students outside of class, too, noting that it would be hard for him if research was all he did and he never saw a student.

DeWall says the psychology department is “like the most functional family that you can imagine.” He’s felt well-supported both personally and professionally since his arrival at UK. The chatter he often overhears at conferences from faculty at other schools paints a stark contrast to the environment at UK. For the members of UK’s psychology department, he said, “It’s about: how can we create the best community for us and for our students to thrive?”

Lest you think that DeWall’s original love of music, the one that inadvertently allowed him to discover social psychology, has fallen by the wayside, never fear. “I’m always listening to music,” he said. Moving to the Bluegrass State has even expanded his repertoire: “I had never heard bluegrass before moving to Lexington. Now I have about six bluegrass albums.” That would be six bluegrass albums in what sounds to be an expansive and diverse collection. On occasion, when he’s not researching ways to address social pain, he also pulls out the ol’ guitar for some string-strumming like in the old days.

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