Rejection Sensitivity: A Self-fulfilling Prophecy with important implications for mentoring

Illustrated silhouette of a man sitting with his head in his handDowney, G., Freitas, A. L., Michaelis, B., & Khouri, H. (1998). The self-fulfilling prophecy in close relationships: Rejection sensitivity and rejection by romantic partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 545-560.

Introduction: Research shows that people’s beliefs about their significant others (including expectations concerning rejection and acceptance) can influence the course of their relationships in important ways. Rejection expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies that  lead people to behave in ways that actually elicit rejection from others (Merton, 1948 & Sroufe, 1990). Rejection sensitivity  (RS) has been conceptualized as the disposition to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and overreact to slights and signs of rejection (Downey & Feldman, 1996; Downey, Lebolt, Rincon, & Freitas, 1998; Feldman & Downey, 1994).

Research has shown that girls and women tend to be more sensitive to rejection, and that such cognitions tend to be problematic during the conflictual discussions (Bradbury, Beach, Fincham, & Nelson, 1996; Bradbury & Fincham, 1992, 1993; G. E. Miller & Bradbury, 1995). Downey (1997) found that RS was more strongly associated with women’s than with men’s pessimism about the course and outcome of conflicts with romantic partners. In this study , Geraldine Downey examined whether and how this proposed self-fulfilling prophecy operated in the romantic relationships of people high in rejection sensitivity. This research assessed whether people’s anxious expectations of rejection prompt them to behave toward romantic partners in ways that elicit rejection and predict breakup.

Method: The dating couples were recruited throughout the Columbia University campus and received $50 compensation to complete the study. At least one member of each couple was a student at Columbia University. The study was restricted to couples in committed relationships that had been ongoing for at least 6 months and both members of the couple lived in New York City. The 75 couples were mailed packets consisting of seven identical, structured questionnaires to be completed at the end of the day for a total of 28 days. Participants were asked to return each week’s set of diaries as soon as they were completed. One year after the diary study, 53 of the 75 couples were contacted successfully and asked about their current relationship status.


Relationship Dissatisfaction:

  • Men and women in relationships that ended during the 1-year follow-up period were more dissatisfied at the daily instances compared to the couples in relationships that remain intact
  • On days that were preceded by conflict, relative to those that were not, the partners of women who were high in RS (HRS) showed substantial increases in relationship dissatisfaction and in thoughts of ending the relationship.
  • In contrast, partners of women who were low in RS (LRS) showed minimal declines in dissatisfaction and in thoughts of ending the relationship

Perceptions of Partner Behavior:

  • HRS women perceived their partners as being  less accepting than did LRS women ,even on days that were not preceded by conflict
  • On days preceded by conflict, HRS women perceived their partners as being less accepting and more withdrawn than by LRS women

Relationship Satisfaction:

  • Although the partners of HRS and LRS women did not differ significantly in pre-conflict anger, the partners of HRS women were significantly angrier about their relationships after conflict than were the partners of LRS women.
  • HRS women’s greater negativity during their discussions helped account for why their partners were angrier than LRS women’s partners after their discussions.

Conclusion/ Major Findings:

This study provides evidence that rejection expectations can lead people to behave in ways that elicit rejection from others. The findings show that there is an association between rejection expectancies and their confirmation. Women who anxiously expected rejection behaved in ways during conflict that elicited a rejecting response from their romantic partners. These findings are consistent with evidence that women’s hostility toward significant others often follows perceived threats to their relationships (Harris, 1993). The findings suggest that the couples naturally occurring conflicts produced a cycle which women’s rejection expectancies led to their partners’ rejecting responses, operationalized as partner-reported relationship dissatisfaction and thoughts of ending the relationship.