ScienceDaily (Nov. 9, 2006)
— Poor Bridget Jones. At the beginning of the first film
about her diary and life, the character, played by actress
Renée Zellweger, is fat and alone in her apartment where she
mimes one of the great self-pitying song hits of all time:
"All by Myself." But Bridget's problem may be more than skin
In new research, reported in the current online issue of
the journal Social Neuroscience, researchers from the
University of Georgia and San Diego State University report
for the first time that social exclusion actually causes
changes in a person's brain function and can lead to poor
decision-making and a diminished learning ability.
"Our findings indicate that social rejection can be a
powerful influence on how people act," said W. Keith
Campbell, a psychologist who led the research. The new
research is the first to examine subjects' brain patterns
following social exclusion using the magnetoencephalography
Other authors of the paper include Jean Twenge of San
Diego State University; Brett Clementz and Jennifer
McDowell, also psychology faculty members at UGA; and UGA
graduate students Elizabeth Krusemark, Kara Dyckman and Amy
Researchers have known for a long time that there is a
link between social exclusion and the failure of
self-control. For instance, people who are rejected in
social situations often respond by abusing alcohol,
expressing aggression or performing poorly at school or
work. (Bridget Jones chooses "vodka and Chaka Khan.")
The new study, however, is the first to use MEG to show
that there are actual changes inside the brain when test
subjects are manipulated to feel socially excluded. MEG is
an imaging technique that measures the magnetic fields
produced by electrical activity in the brain. It is most
often used by physicians to localize brain tumors prior to
surgery or to study the brain function of patients with
The subjects in the current study were 30 women
undergraduates in a psychology course at UGA. Each one was
asked to complete a written personality questionnaire. The
team leading the experiment then said they would "feed the
answers into a computer," which was, in fact, untrue.
Instead, half of the sample, selected randomly, was told
their answers showed they would "end up alone" later in
life. The others were given a more neutral assessment of
their social interactions.
"At this point, we gave each of the subjects a series of
simple mathematical problems, taking 25 minutes, to solve on
a computer screen in front of them while they were in the
MEG machine," said Campbell. "We presented participants with
180 problems, and what we found was surprising."
The MEG data revealed that those in the social-exclusion
group had clear differences in activity in the brain's
occipital, parietal and prefrontal cortex regions. Those in
the social-exclusion group also performed more poorly on the
math questions. The inference is that social exclusion
actually affects the brain's neural circuitry.
The parietal cortex is involved in attention, while the
prefrontal cortex helps support so-called "executive
functioning" processes such as working memory and other
behaviors that may support self control.
"We found that there was a direct link between social
exclusion, brain activity and performance," said Campbell.
One of the advantages of the MEG technique is that brain
changes can be recorded in milliseconds, not in seconds, as
some research of this kind may take. MEG actually has more
advantages than other brain-imaging methods when it is used
to look at real-time activity during a task.
The study may indicate why those who are never picked for
athletic teams in pickup games tend to stay in that group
and why those socially excluded sometimes react with
inappropriate behavior or even violence.
The subjects in the UGA-San Diego State study didn't have
clear or obvious reactions when they were told they would be
alone later in life. Campbell said none of them seemed
obviously upset or wept, for instance. At the end of the
project, researchers told the subjects that it was
completely untrue that their personality inventories showed
that some of them would be alone later in life.
Bridget Jones winds up with her dream lover, as always
happens in romantic comedies. The new research, however,
shows that those who are socially excluded are more apt to
show self-control difficulties, and might even wind up "all
The research was supported in part by a grant from the
University of Georgia Research Foundation.