In a Research Article published between Columbia, LI University, University of California Berkley and University of Washington the subject is Rejection Sensitivity and the Defensive Motivational System. Now this study isn’t specifically tailored for Borderline Personality Disorder, but as I discussed yesterday, people with BPD are particularly prone to Rejection Sensitivity. I’ve extracted the more relevant passages for this post and interpreted them in blue for easier reading (I’m going to skip the Methodology section because while I find them fascinating, I recognize that not everyone likes scientific minutia the way I do, hah!), but you can read the whole article: HERE.
Rejection Sensitivity and the Defensive Motivational System: Insights From the Startle Response to Rejection Cues
By: Geraldine Downey, Vivian Mougios, Ozlem Ayduk, Bonita E. London, and Yuichi Shoda
Rejection sensitivity (RS) is the disposition to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and intensely react to rejection. This study used the startle probe paradigm to test whether the affect-based defensive motivational system is automatically activated by rejection cues in people who are high in RS. Stimuli were representational paintings depicting rejection (by Hopper) and acceptance (by Renoir), as well as nonrepresentational paintings of either negative or positive valence (by Rothko and Miro, respectively). Eyeblink startle magnitude was potentiated in people high in RS when they viewed rejection themes, compared with when they viewed nonrepresentational negative themes. Startle magnitude was not attenuated during viewing of acceptance themes in comparison with nonrepresentational positive themes. Overall, the results provide evidence that for people high in RS, rejection cues automatically activate the defensive motivational system, but acceptance cues do not automatically activate the appetitive motivational system.
Rejection sensitivity (RS) is the disposition to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and intensely react to rejection. Essentially this study used a series of upsetting (negative) and pleasant (positive) pictures and sounds to trigger a startling response in people that have been screened to have either a typical sensitivity or a High Rejection Sensitivity. From here they should be able to determine how much higher (or if it’s higher) the response is in people with high Rejection Sensitivity when they view negative rejection themes. Comparing this to when they view non rejection themes. The results of this provide evidence that rejection cues automatically activate the defensive motivational system. In an interesting twist it should also demonstrate that positive acceptance themes do NOT automatically activate positive feelings of motivation and acceptance.
So while the negative defensive system automatically responds to perceiving negative stimuli, the positive reinforcement area of the brain does not automatically respond to positive stimuli.
Everyone experiences rejection. Whereas some people respond with equanimity, others respond in ways that profoundly compromise their well-being and relationships. To help explain such maladaptive reactions to rejection, we have proposed a specific cognitive-affective processing disposition, rejection sensitivity (RS; Downey & Feldman, 1996). At the core of this disposition is the anxious expectation of being rejected by people who are important to the self, an expectation developed through exposure to severe and prolonged rejection. Our research has shown that individuals who anxiously expect rejection have a tendency to readily perceive it in other people’s behavior and then react to it in ways that undermine their relationships; their behavior thus leads to the feared outcome (see Levy, Ayduk, & Downey, 2001). We have applied the term high-rejection-sensitive (HRS) to describe people who show a heightened tendency to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and intensely react to rejection (Downey & Feldman, 1996).
Everyone experiences rejection. Whereas some people respond with equanimity, others respond in ways that profoundly compromise their well-being and relationships. The purpose of this study is to explain this maladaptive reaction to rejection. Research shows that people who anxiously expect rejection have a tendency to readily perceive it in other people’s behavior and then react to it in ways that undermine their relationships; their behavior [could contribute to] the feared outcome. This is believed to stem from the exposure to sever and long prolonged rejection by people who are important to the self.
Why do people who anxiously expect rejection behave in ways that lead to the realization of their worst fears? Our view is that the RS dynamic functions to defend the self against rejection by significant others and social groups. To the extent that the individual has experienced the pain of rejection, protecting the self from rejection while maintaining close relationships will become an important goal, and a self-defensive system such as RS will develop to serve it. However, this system becomes dysfunctional to the extent that it gets elicited automatically with minimal rejection cues and sets in motion the precise actions that ultimately lead to the fulﬁllment of expectations of rejection (Downey, Freitas, Michaelis, & Khouri, 1998).
Why do people who anxiously expect rejection behave in ways that lead to the realization of their worst fears? It’s believed that the purpose of this Rejection Sensitivity is to defend the Self against rejection from significant others and social groups. Protecting the self from rejection while maintaining close relationships is an important goal and a self-defensive system will enable this to develop. However, if the system becomes dysfunctional, as it does in the Highly Rejection Sensitive person, so that it triggers automatically with minimal rejection cues it can cause a person to behave in ways that actually lead to fulfilling the expectation of rejection. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of rejection.
The present study tested our guiding assumption that RS is a defensively motivated system that gets elicited by rejection-relevant stimuli and that this elicitation occurs automatically, at an early, nonverbal stage in the activation of the RS dynamic.
Converging evidence from neurological and behavioral research suggests that two primary affective-motivational systems organize behavior––an appetitive system that responds to positive stimuli (i.e., rewards), motivating approach and consummatory behavior, and a defensive system that responds to negative, aversive stimuli (i.e., punishments, threat), disposing the individual toward active avoidance, and ﬁght-or-ﬂight (Gray, 1987; Lang, Davis, & O¨ hman, 2000; Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999).
Neurological and Behavioral research suggests there are two primary affective-motivational systems that organize behavior –
1. An Appetitive system to responds to positive stimuli (rewards), which motivates positive interaction and fulfilling relationship behavior.
2. A Defensive System that responds to negative, aversive stimuli (punishments, threats), which motivates people towards active avoidance, and fight-or-flight behavior.
This study tests that assumption that Rejection Sensitivity is a Defensively Motivated System that is triggered by stimuli that is personally association with rejection. What’s more, this study shows that this defensive system is triggered at an early stage of interaction before actual statements of rejection are even made by taking non-verbal cues. In essence, it’s not even something that needs to be said, non verbal cues, body language, demeanor or interpreted in a way that triggers self-defensive systems.
DEFENSIVE MOTIVATIONAL SYSTEM (DMS)
Lang et al. (1990) proposed a model of human emotions that is consistent with this literature. In this model, human emotions are viewed as action dispositions that organize behavior along an appetitive-aversive dimension. Valence determines which system is activated (i.e., defensive vs. appetitive), but arousal determines the intensity with which the system is activated. According to this model, when negatively valenced and highly arousing stimuli are encountered, the DMS becomes activated to prepare for rapid execution of a set of automatic behaviors aimed at self-protection. What constitutes athreat can be biologically based (e.g., an instinctive threat reaction to seeing a snake) or socially learned (e.g., an expectation of rejection in certain social situations).
Lang organizes emotions along a spectrum from desirable to avoidant. The capacity of a person to react with or affect another person in some way (as by attraction or the facilitation of a function or activity) determines whether the positive or negative system is activated, but the height of arousal determines the just how intensely the reaction will be. When negative experiences are coupled with highly arousing stimuli, that defense motivational system kicks into high gear to prepare for rapid, automatic response behaviors meant as self-protection. What constitutes a threat is biologically based or learned during development based on personal experience.
Research on both animals and humans suggests that when the DMS is activated by the potential of danger, physiological responses to newly encountered threat-congruent cues are ampliﬁed, and physiological responses to threat-incongruent cues are attenuated. That is,the organism is oriented to detect cues that are congruent with a state of threat and to act when conﬁrmatory cues are detected (see Lang et al., 2000). The model also indicates that when the appetitive system is activated, there should be a relative dampening of physiological responses to threatening cues.
Research shows that when the Defensive Motivational System is triggered that primal response to danger is amplified and heightened, while the natural responses that tell you something is not a threat is diminished. So when you’re in Danger Mode, you’re ability to tell the difference between Threat and Not A Threat is minimized. It’s all danger.
CONCEPTUALIZING REJECTION SENSITIVTY AS A DEFENSIVE MOTIVATIONAL SYSTEM
Our phenomenological description of the operation of the RS system closely parallels the operation of the DMS. According to our conceptualization of RS, in situations in which rejection is a possibility (e.g., meeting a prospective dating partner, asking one’s friend to do a favor), people who are high in RS are uncertain about whether they will be accepted or rejected, but the outcome is critical. Thus, for HRS individuals, such situations incorporate cognitive appraisals of threat under conditions of uncertainty––the specific conditions known toactivate the DMS (Fanselow, 1994; Lang et al., 2000; Lazarus, 1999; LeDoux, 1996; Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). Low-RS (LRS) individuals are less likely to experience heightened DMS activation in these same situations because they typically deem rejection less probable and of less concern.
In situations where there is a possibility of rejection (e.g., meeting a prospective dating partner, asking one’s friend to do a favor), people who are high in RS are uncertain about whether they will be accepted or rejected, but the outcome is critical. For individuals high in Rejection Sensitivity these situations use cognitive appraisals for potential threat, all the while their own emotional conditions are uncertain, more anxious, more on edge. These emotional conditions are the ones known to activate the Defensive Motivational System. This is in contrast to low-Rejection Sensitivity people who are less likely to experience heightened DMS activity in the same situations because they don’t enter the situation expecting rejection or assess rejection to be less probable and less of a concern.
As we have described, when the DMS is activated, it facilitates monitoring and detection of threat-relevant cues and prepares the individual for swift response once cues of danger are detected. We hypothesize that in rejection-relevant situations, this system is automatically activated in HRS individuals.
So when the DMS is triggered, it puts you on the lookout for potential threat-relevant cues. You become hypersensitive to what might occur and the body/mind prepares itself for a quick response if threatening or emotionally dangerous situations are detected. In rejection-relevant situations this response is automatic for high-RS people.
Given our assumption that RS develops specifically to defend the self against rejection, we hypothesize that the system is biased primarily toward dealing with threats of rejection. We do not expect acceptance to elicit the appetitive system in HRS people to a greater extent than in LRS individuals. Thus, RS should predict indicators of heightened DMS activation in the presence of rejection cues but should not predict heightened activation of the appetitive system in the presence of acceptance cues.
Since Rejection Sensitivity is believed to have developed specifically to ward against rejection it’s believed that this will only predict heightened DMS activation in situations which present negative rejection cues, but not heightened activation of the positive reward system when positive acceptance cues are given. Perception of the bad, is REALLY FREAKING BAD, but perception of the good is still just, meh, it’s good.
RESULTS & DISCUSSION
When viewing art depicting rejection themes (Hopper’s paintings), people who were high in RS showed an ampliﬁed eyeblink following a loud noise, relative to their eyeblink response when viewing each of the other types of artwork, whereas people low in RS did not. This ﬁnding indicates that when HRS individuals are viewing rejection related stimuli, they show heightened DMS activation.
Unsurprisingly when people who are highly Rejection Sensitive viewed the rejection stimuli, they did show heightened DMS activation.
We propose that the activation of this system helps explain the readiness with which HRS individuals perceive rejection in otherpeople’s behavior and contributes to the intensity of their responses tothe perceived rejection. The adaptive value of the DMS comes from its ability to trigger quick defensive responses under threat without the individual needing time to think (Lang et al., 2000; LeDoux, 1996; Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). Such an emergency system can become maladaptive, however, if activated when reﬂective, strategic behavior is required, when the threat is minimal, or when efforts to prevent the realization of the threat occur at the expense of other personal goals.
This leads to the conclusion that the activation of this system helps to explain why high RS people are at thee ready to perceive rejection in the behavior of other people and it contributes to the intensity of their responses to that perceived rejection. This was evolutionarily advantageous because the DMS system has the ability to trigger quick defensive responses when under threat without the individual having to waste time to think. [Unfortunately when this system becomes maladaptive it remains on continuously, instead of turning off when the threat has been removed.] This emergency system can become maladaptive though, if it activates on reflex when more advantageous behavior would suit the situation better, like when a threat is minimal, or when efforts to prevent the realization of the threat (when your actions cause the threat to take form when it normally wouldn’t have otherwise) occur at the expense of higher priority personal goals.
[It’s easy to see how this is an evolutionary advantage in the wild, or say, in an abusive household… unfortunately our systems don’t de-evolve or let go of the past rapidly at all and we still have these systems solidly in place long after our environments have changed.]
We found no evidence that acceptance cues elicit a positive, appetitive motivational state to a greater extent in HRS individuals than in LRS individuals. These ﬁndings support our view that acceptance and rejection are not of equivalent importance for HRS individuals and that the RS system develops specifically to protect the self against the threat of rejection.
As expected, while the rejection cues produced the defensive state, there was no evidence seen that positive cues of acceptance produced a corresponding positive motivational state. This supports the conclusion that acceptance and rejection hold different levels of importance for highly Rejection Sensitive people ( It’s more important to not be rejected, than it is to be accepted) and that this system develops specifically to protect the self against the threat of rejection.
(Even when positive acceptance is given, it doesn’t necessarily trigger a positive reaction in the brain. Here’s an exaggerated example: Hearing the phrase “I love you” is important but it doesn’t give you that gut feeling of internalized safety.)
This is only the first study of its kind and the paper acknowledges that it should be followed up with a broader range of stimulus events.
All in all I find this quite enlightening. It certainly makes a little more sense of the seemingly baffling behavior we have sometimes. You know that look. That expression of complete and utter What the Fuck? It’s often been stated that people with BPD are hypersensitive to the emotional states of those around them. However our failing is in the interpretation of those states. Our fear of rejection leads to a self-centered interpretation of the cues we perceive, which can in turn trigger our less favorable behavior, and actually lead to the fights, emotional throw downs, and flaring tempers that bring about the rejection and abandonment we fear. Hmmmmmmmm.
Learning to sit on our own behavior until we’ve had time to settle our emotions, control the impulsive reactions, and think through what actually happened vs. what he perceive to have happened is an important skill to develop. Breathe. Think. Then determine the course of action we should take. Of course this is so much easier said than done when you’re in the midst of an emotional maelstrom, but if we practice it does get easier and become more natural.