Getting rejected from that job is never fun, but new research explains why some "No's" hurt more than others.
Science of Work

This is the most painful way to be rejected, according to science

Getting rejected from that job is never fun, but new research explains why some “No’s” hurt us more than others. A recent study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that when a rejection makes a comparison between you and another person, we will feel the lingering sting of that slight far more than a flat-out no.

To prove this, researchers recruited more than 100 participants and split them into teams of three in which they were told that they would be completing brainteasers to test how groups worked together. The catch? In each trio, there were always two people in on the plan, who followed the researchers’ instructions on how to act. In half of the groups, the unwitting third party had to watch the other participant choose to work with the second person over them. In the other half, one of the actors would simply choose to work alone over working with the others. The participants who had to watch two others team up without them reported feeling much higher negative emotions of sadness and anger and disliked the rejector much more than those who just watched the rejector be a loner.

Much like dating, knowing that someone else is taking the place of a role that you want to be yours hurts us more than a rejection where you know no one is taking your place. The researchers suggest that’s because comparative rejections are two rejections built in one — not only didn’t the recruiters want you for the job, they wanted someone else more than they wanted you.

“This choice of someone else who fills the role the rejectee wanted is a clearer signal to the rejectee that they have been excluded and are not seen as belonging,” the study explains.

Study: You’re better off not knowing who got picked over you

When we get rejected, we sometimes are struck with a need to search for answers as to why it happened. Who got the job over me? Who’s my ex’s new love interest now? In a separate experiment, researchers proved that knowing the answer makes us feel worse than not having that information.

The researchers recruited participants to imagine being dumped by a partner, and were then asked if they would want to know more information. The majority of participants wanted to know. Half of the participants were told that their fake ex-partner wanted to date someone else, and half were told that their fake-ex didn’t to date anyone right now. Only the half that got told their fake-ex was spending time alone had the negative reaction decrease.

What researchers found is that we often assume the worst, and will react badly to rejection until it becomes a non-comparative rejection. “In the absence of any information about a rejection, people react as though they were rejected for someone else. Only if they explicitly find out they have not been rejected for anyone is their negative reaction attenuated,” the study states.

These findings are relevant to many employers because rejection letters from well-meaning colleges and employers often like to mention how many talented applicants there were in a pool to ease the blow of that chosen talented applicant not being you. Ironically, the explanation of this process of meritocracy only makes us feel worse. As this new research suggests, the kinder thing to do in a rejection is to not cruelly elaborate in too much detail about the final candidate. Instead, employers can make statements that can increase the rejectee’s sense of belonging in their moment of vulnerability.

For job seekers, the study is a cautionary tale to be careful what you wish for as you seek more information into a rejection. As this study shows, the knowledge won’t feel empowering. Sometimes, job seekers are better off not knowing who got chosen over you.