Bob is interested in dating Anne and thinks that they could really click, but he is unsure whether Anne feels the same way. As a result, Bob is afraid to make a move on Anne because he doesn’t want to be rejected. So Bob plays it cool, thinking that his interest is obvious to Anne, and waits to see if Anne will ask him out. Anne, who is interested in Bob, is also worried about being rejected, and so she also plays it cool and waits to see if Bob will ask her out. They are both holding back because they each fear rejection, but because neither of them make a move, they both assume each is disinterested in the other. They also both think their worries about rejection and interest in dating are obvious. Alas, Bob and Anne never end up dating, because they both waited for the other to make the first move and when the move didn’t happen, they assumed the other was disinterested. You may have experienced versions of this scenario in your own life, or seen it played out on TV or in movies. In this post, I describe research on how the fear of rejection affects how people think and behave when trying to start a new relationship (what researchers refer to as relationship initiation).
A few months ago, I wrote about how self-esteem affects behavior during relationship initiation. To recap, men with lower self-esteem (vs. those with higher self-esteem) tend to use more indirect flirting (e.g., leaning toward the other person) as opposed to direct flirting (e.g., expressing interest in spending time with the other person) when there is a high risk of rejection compared to when there is a low risk of rejection.1 People in general tend to think that they are more likely to be nervous than others when initiating a relationship and that they are more likely than others to not pursue a relationship with someone due to fear of rejection.2 This tendency for people to think that they’re the only ones who fear rejection can affect their behavior and how they interpret the behavior of others.
When people are unsure about whether or not another person is romantically interested, and they’re nervous about it, they might do things like decide to wait for the other person to make the first move2 or withdraw (e.g., stop talking) with the hopes that the other person will pursue them.3 The scenario at the start of this article gives an example of this phenomenon: Both Bob and Anne were romantically interested in each other, but they were both worried about being rejected and waited for the other to make the first move. Neither Bob nor Anne ended up initiating and so a romantic relationship between them never formed. Part of what happened was that they failed to consider the fact that the other person could be nervous, too. Bob did not talk because he wanted to see if Anne would talk, but he interpreted Anne not talking as meaning that she was not interested in him. People give alternate explanations for their own behavior versus the behavior of others.2 Consider another example: from Bob’s perspective, if he asks Anne what she’s doing next weekend, then he feels like he’s conveying his romantic interest in a direct manner; but if she asks him what he’s doing next weekend, then to him that could mean anything and doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s romantically interested in him. In other words, Bob is giving different explanations for his own behavior in comparison to Anne’s behavior, even though Anne’s behaving in the exact same way as him.
Another part of what’s happening in the scenario that started this article is that people who are worried about being rejected (like people with lower self-esteem, who are anxiously attached, or even people who are just reminded of a time that they were rejected) tend to think that their flirting is more obvious than it really is and that other people will take their nervousness about being rejected into account when interpreting their behavior.4 In one series of studies, researchers compared participants’ true romantic feelings with how much interest participants thought they had conveyed and with how much interest they actually conveyed. Guess what they found? None of the ratings matched up for people who were worried about being rejected.4 For example, the researchers asked Bob how interested he was in Anne and how much he thought he made his interest obvious to Anne, and they asked Anne how interested Bob was in her. It turns out that when Bob was very interested and very worried about rejection, he thought that Anne knew that he was at least somewhat interested, but in reality Anne thought that Bob was not interested. When Bob was less interested in Anne or less worried about rejection, then he was more accurate in rating how much interest he had conveyed.
This research provides insight into why some people continue to be lonely: they think that they are expressing more interest in others than they really are; that their nervousness is more obvious than it really is; and that others will take their nerves into account (when, in reality, others interpret their behavior as indicating disinterest). Furthermore, people fail to consider the fact that the person with whom they’re interacting might also be worried about rejection and that the other person might also be holding back. So the next time you find yourself talking to someone you’re interested in and you are worried about being rejected, remember that your interest might not be very obvious and that the other person might be worried about rejection, too.
TL;DR – Worried about rejection & holding back? Your romantic intentions might not be obvious, people probably aren’t thinking about your anxiety, & others might be holding back their romantic interest, too.
(TL;DR) = Too long; didn’t read
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1Cameron, J. J., Stinson, D. A., & Wood, J. V. (2013). The bold and the bashful: Self-esteem, gender, and relationship initiation. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 685-691. doi: 10.1177/1948550613476309
2Vorauer, J. D., & Ratner, R. K. (1996). Who’s going to make the first move? Pluralistic ignorance as an impediment to relationship formation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 13, 483-506.
3Douglas, W. (1987). Affinity-testing in initial interactions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 4, 3-15.
4Vorauer, J. D., Cameron, J. J, Holmes, J. G., & Pearce, D. (2003). Invisible overtures: Fears of rejection and the signal amplification bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 793-812.
Dr. Lisa Hoplock – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Lisa’s research examines how personality traits like self-esteem and attachment influence interpersonal processes in ambiguous social situations — situations affording both rewards and costs — such as social support contexts, relationship initiation, and marriage proposals.