Rejection Based on Stigmatization is Particularly Distressing
“You are so disgusting! Stay away from me!” a boy shouted at his gay classmate. Every day, millions of people are devalued and rejected because of a stigmatized identity.
Stigma is a characteristic that conveys a social identity that is devalued in a particular social context, for example having a mental illness, being LGBT, belonging to a racial minority, or having other attributes that other people evaluate negatively. Stigmatized people are often devalued, excluded, rejected, and discriminated against by members of mainstream groups. Being stigmatized is obviously an inherently unpleasant and hurtful experience as when gay men and lesbians face homophobia, African Americans face racism, and women encounter sexism.
Even if you haven’t been stigmatized because of your sexual orientation, race, or gender, think about how you feel when you are devalued, even for a trivial reason, such as the clothes you are wearing. Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Upset? Angry? Maybe hurt? Probably so.
And stigmatization not only makes people experience negative emotions but also has negative consequences for their social interactions. Negative experiences due to stigmatization are associated with social withdrawal and aggression, and can affect whether stigmatized people interact with others at all. Based on past experiences of being rejected, people become very vigilant to prejudice and unconsciously expect rejection in future interactions.
And, when somebody devalues or hurts you, you will probably trust them less. Likewise, stigmatization leads people to expect negative social interactions and particularly to mistrust those who might be prejudiced against them. For example, research shows that people who experience stigmatization from health care providers express little trust in health professionals more generally. Even worse, experiences of stigmatization make people more uncertain about whether they can trust other people, even those who do not discriminate against them.
My colleagues at the University of Exeter and I recently examined how stigma-based rejections impair interpersonal trust for stigmatized individuals. In our study, we had research participants either recall an experience of rejection that was based on a stigma they possessed (Study 1) or we created a situation in which participants experienced an actual rejection due to their stigmatized identity in an online job interview (Study 2). Then they engaged in an exercise with another person that allowed us to measure how much they trusted other people.
Participants who had recalled a stigma-based rejection showed less trust in an interpersonal interaction than participants who had recalled a rejection that was not based on stigma. This finding shows that stigma-based rejection uniquely influences trust in other people, even those who were not involved in the rejection.
Of course, in real life, the negative effects of stigmatization are usually widespread and ongoing because they occur regularly. So, the next time you interact with someone who has a stigmatized characteristic, consider being particularly nice and affirming toward them. Small acts of acceptance will not only reduce their emotional distress but could also shape their expectations about trust in other social interactions.
For Further Reading
Zhang, M., Barreto, M., & Doyle, D. (2019). Stigma-based rejection experiences affect trust in others. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(3), 308-316. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550619829057
Ming Zhang is an assistant professor at the Institute of Psychology, the Chinese Academy of Science. She studies the interaction of social pain and physical pain.