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The sociometer hypothesis

Author: Dr Simon Moss


According to the sociometer hypothesis, when individuals feel rejected-or anticipate they might be excluded in the future-they experience a specific profile of feelings, manifested as a decline in self esteem (e.g., Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995). Self esteem, therefore, can be conceptualized as a subjective experience that has evolved to encourage behaviours that restore social relationships (Leary, 1990, 1999).

Description of the theory

The sociometer hypothesis assumes that self esteem evolved to alert individuals as to whether or not they might be rejected or excluded from some social group (Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995). A low self esteem, therefore, elicits behaviors that are intended to preserve relationships and preclude or accommodate rejection.

The sociometer hypothesis is consistent with belonginess theory (Baumeister and Leary (1995). According to this theory, individuals have evolved to experience a robust need for closeness and social belonging. Natural selection favored individuals who maintained close bonds with groups, because this attachment provided security and facilitated reproduction. Individuals, thus, who are ostracized experience intense psychological distress (Sommer, Williams, Ciarroco & Baumeister, 2001& Williams, Shore, & Grahe, 1998).

Refinements to the original theory

Shackelford (2001) argued the sociometer hypothesis does not specify which forms of rejection are especially likely to dent the self esteem of individuals. Shackleford applied an evolutionary perspective, arguing that self esteem has evolved, at least partly, to prevent behaviors that diminish the reproductive success of individuals.

For example, one of the principal objectives of men is to ensure their wives invest time and effort in rearing his children. Wives who are not faithful, but engage in sexual infidelity, are less inclined to invest this time and effort. Their sexual infidelity, therefore, should significantly impair the self esteem of their husbands.

The reproductive success of women, however, is less dependent upon whether the husband dedicates time and effort to rearing her children. In contrast, the reproductive success of women is closely related to the extent to which they are perceived as physically attractive. Throughout evolution, women who could produce children were, over time, gradually perceived as more attractive. Hence, the self esteem of women should be appreciably related to the extent to which they are perceived as attractive.

Shackelford uncovered results that accord with these propositions. Sexual infidelity was especially likely to affect the self esteem of husbands& derogation of the extent to which they are attractive was particularly likely to affect the self esteem of wives.

Empirical evidence

Leary, Tambor, Terdal, and Downs (1995) accumulated some evidence that supports the sociometer hypothesis-the proposition that self esteem can be regarded as a barometer of whether or not individuals feel they might be excluded. First, in their study, they discovered the self esteem of participants was especially likely to drop after they imagined themselves performing behaviors in which they felt they could be excluded or rejected by someone else-such as cheating on an exam, yelling at someone, or causing a traffic accident. Other studies have also shown that merely imaging rejections are sufficient to impair self esteem (Leary, Haupt, Strausser, & Chokel, 1998).

Second, the self esteem of participants declined if they were told they must work alone on some task, merely because other individuals had rejected any prospect of collaboration. If participants were informed they must work alone merely because of some random decision, self esteem was preserved (Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995).

Physiological underpinnings of the sociometer

Dickerson, Gruenewald, and Kemeny (2009) outlined the physiological responses to social threats. That is, when individuals are the targets of bullying, ostracism, criticism, or other negative events that challenge their social status or reputation, a specific sequence of responses is elicited. Emotions such as shame are evoked, levels of cortisol escalate, and elements of the immune system that relate to inflammation, such as proinflammatory cytokines, are activated.

These responses are initially adaptive, encouraging behaviors that redress the potential implications of these social threats (e.g., Dickerson, Gruenewald, & Kemeny, 2004). Nevertheless, when these responses are chronic, individuals might become more sensitive to these threats, ultimately undermining health.

In particular, as Dickerson and Kemeny (2004) showed, stressful events were more likely to evoke elevated levels of cortisol in individuals-the putative stress hormone-when an audience was evaluating their performance. In other words, when some problem arises, cortisol primarily rises is social implications are likely.

Second, an audience that evaluates a person not only amplifies cortisol, but also evokes more emotions suich as shame, embarrassment, and humiliation (Gruenewald, Kemeny, Aziz, & Fahey, 2004). Other negative emotions, such as sadness and anxiety, were not as contingent upon the social implications of these stressful contexts.

Finally, as Dickerson, Gruenewald, and Kemeny (2009) discuss, these social threats also affect proinflammatory immune activity. When the body is exposed to some pathogen or injury, immune cells are infused into the infected region. Foreign bodies are destroyed, and tissue is repaired. Proinflammatory cytokines, such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha and interleukin-6, coordinate this process. Only recently, however, have researchers shown that psychological, in addition to biological, threats also incite this inflammatory activation (Steptoe, Hamer, & Chida, 2007). For example, stressful events increase tumor necrosis factor-alpha especially when an audience is judging performance (cited by Dickerson, Gruenewald, & Kemeny, 2009).

All of these responses might preserve social status. To illustrate, shame might elicit behaviors that curb social conflict-submissive displays such as bowing the head or avoiding gaze (Gilbert, 1997). The cortisol can stimulate the immune response, which in turn can facilitate recovery from injuries, which are common during social conflict (Dhabhar, 1998).

Nevertheless, chronic levels of these responses can translate into detrimental effects as well. The elevated levels of cortisol and proinflammatory cytokines are associated with clinical depression (Connor & Leonard, 1998). Furthermore, chronic and elevated levels of cortisol and proinflammatory cytokines are associated with many diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease (see Dickerson, Gruenewald, & Kemeny, 2009).

Determinants of belonging

Many cues and circumstances can instil a sense of belonging. According to the sociometer model, these cues and circumstances should also enhance self-esteem. To illustrate, when individuals interact with a service provider, such as a barista--such as engage in a brief interaction, smile, and maintain eye contact--they are more likely to experience a sense of belonging, and this sense of belonging tends to evoke positive emotions (Sandstrom & Dunn, 2014). Conversely, during an awkward pause in the flow of conversation (Koudenburg, Postmes, & Gordijn, 2011) or after observing an averted gaze (Wirth, Sacco, Hugenberg, & Williams, 2010), this sense of belonging diminishes.


Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon (1997) challenged the utility of the sociometer hypothesis, arguing this perspective does not explain the mounting evidence that favors an alternative perspective: terror management theory. These authors argued that a plethora of observations, such as the finding that participants who contemplate their mortality strive more vigorously to improve their self esteem, cannot be ascribed to the sociometer hypothesis.

Furthermore, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon (1997) argue that many other perspectives, such as symbolic self-completion theory (Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982) and self-verification theory (Swann, 1987), can explain the finding that self esteem would decline when individuals feel excluded or rejected.

In addition, some evidence seems to contradict the sociometer hypothesis. Individuals tend to become more aggressive after they are excluded from some social collective (Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, & Stucke, 2001). From the perspective of the sociometer hypothesis, rejection, according to Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon (1997), should elicit behaviors that cultivate rather than compromise relationships. Leary (2004) subsequently published a rejoinder to many of these criticisms, highlighting that other theories demonstrate similar shortfalls.

Practical implications

Individuals with a low self esteem are more likely to experience dejection, engage in substance abuse, exhibit eating disorders, and demonstrate many other problems. Nevertheless, according to the sociometer hypothesis, many of these disturbances reflect a maladaptive attempt to attract acceptance or prevent rejection (Leary, Schreindorfer, & Haupt, 1995). When self esteem is low, individuals experience a profound urge to be embraced, not rejected, and for example might attempt to lose weight rapidly, provoking some eating disorders.


Rejection or exclusion does not only diminish self-esteem but also increases materialism. Specifically, after people feel rejected or excluded, their self-esteem declines. Because self-esteem could be like a meter that is intended to mobilize acts that restore friendships and relationships, this decline in self-esteem could elicit a host of behaviors. One of these behaviors is the accrual of materials. For example, after individuals purchase cherished possessions, they may be more valued. In addition, they may be more inclined to respect themselves, because they feel these possessions reflect their identity.

Jiang, Zhang, Ke, Hawk, and Qiu (2014) conducted a series of studies that corroborate these arguments. For example, to manipulate rejection, some individuals wrote about a time in which they were rejected. Other individuals wrote about a time in which they were accepted. Finally, some individuals wrote an essay that is unrelated to rejection or acceptance. Next, they completed items that measure materialism, such as the degree to which new clothes or money elicit happiness more than other events like reading, friendships, sport, and achievements. Rejection increased materialism.

Subsequent studies showed that implicit self-esteem, as gauged by the implicit association test, mediated this relationship . Furthermore, if participants completed a task that boosts implicit self-esteem--in which they write the word I before a series of positive adjectives-this effect of rejection on materialism diminished.


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Last Update: 5/26/2016