Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fiction - Rejection Affects Health

NOTE: This post, though referencing an actual psychology study, is a work of fiction. I use the actual study as a jumping-off point for something entirely fanciful.


“Rejection triggers responses in the body that can increase a person’s risk for maladies such as asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and depression, a new study says. Scientists at UCLA recruited 124 healthy young adults to participate in a lab-based test aimed at determining whether social stress such as rejection causes inflammation, which can have detrimental effects on mental and physical health. Participants were put through stressful tests that were designed to make them feel rejected. Measurements of inflammatory markers were performed on samples of oral fluids taken before and after the tests…. Not surprisingly, the inflammatory biological markers in oral fluids increased dramatically after the stressful tests.

—“Rejection Affects Health,” WebMD Health Newsletter, 10 Aug 2010


Our recent study was a big success. One of the conclusions we arrived at is that further study is warranted, with a widened scope. In our initial study we had recruited healthy young adults; what more light could be shed, we wondered, if we studied all ages?

Our first follow-up study was with seniors. The results are not documented because the sessions did not go smoothly. Several of the participants could not hear—and others could not understand—most of what our test administrators were saying. Moreover, several of the male participants had poorly shaved chins, with little white hairs like Shredded Wheat stuck to their skin, and other subjects drooled, which distracted the administrators.

Much better success was found with other age categories, and those results are documented here.

Test #1 — Six-year-old test subject

Several six-year-old study administrators were recruited and trained in how to make the study subject feel rejected. These administrators very quickly caught on to the study methodology and did an excellent job carrying out the test.

On a school playground, a test subject was selected: an especially cute six-year-old girl who we felt would be unaccustomed to rejection. She was not made aware that she was participating in a test. The administrators, who were also her classmates, set about teasing her mercilessly. The first said, “I’m not friends with you anymore!” The second joined in, “Yeah, you’re like a baby, always carrying your ‘Roo Bear’ around!” The third administrator yelled, “We hate Roo Bear—he smells like dog farts!” Then they all laughed.

The impact on the subject was immediate. Subject bawled loudly for some time. We had trouble getting a good oral fluid sample with our swab, as subject thrashed around and her saliva was diluted by nasal mucous, which was flowing freely from both nostrils, and by tears streaming down into her mouth. Subject would not stop yelling. It took us a long time to figure out what she was trying to say: “It’s not ‘Roo Bear,’ it’s ‘Woo Bear,’ and she’s a girl bear!”

Not surprisingly, and despite the trouble with the oral fluid sample, this social trauma resulted in significant increases in markers of inflammatory activity, with abnormally high levels of tumor necrosis factor-α (sTNFαRII) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). We recommend further testing with this age group, though it has become obvious that it would be wise, going forward, to notify the subject’s parents in advance.

Test #2 — Fifteen-year-old test subject

Subject was a fifteen-year-old bike racer. Administrator was a fellow racer, who was given specific instructions in carrying out the test. Following a difficult hill climb bike race, a group of racers was comparing results and talking about the race. Subject, who did not finish in the top twenty, looked ideally awkward from the outset. Administrator said to the group at large, “Hey, I don’t need this energy bar … does anybody want it?” Others had been instructed to say nothing, and eventually subject replied, “Yeaahh!” Administrator stared at him in disgust and did not hand him the energy bar, behaving as though subject were uniquely exempt from the energy bar offer due to some obvious defect.

While this test initially looked promising, the professor made us feel like idiots by refusing to analyze the oral fluid sample. Apparently the test setup was rendered invalid by the elevated inflammation markers that would inevitably accompany athletic challenges like bike races, and we should have known this. We have thought about trying again with this age group but are feeling a bit demoralized.

Test #3 — Twenty-year-old test subject

A pretty brunette college student was recruited as administrator and instructed to be conspicuously friendly toward a prospective subject in her foreign language class. After some delay, subject eventually asked her out on a date. From the outset of the date (a casual lunch at a café), per our instructions, administrator was oddly cold, refusing to smile or engage subject in conversation. Eventually subject asked her to explain herself, to which she responded, “I talked to my old high-school boyfriend for a long time on the phone last night—he’s at BYU—and we’ve decided to get back together.”

To our great surprise, the oral fluid sample showed no significant increase in either sTNFαRII or IL-6. We interviewed the subject later; here is the most salient excerpt from his statement:

“She was straight-up fly, so I made sure not to get my hopes up. Sure, I was disappointed, but mostly I was trying not to laugh. I was tempted to say, ‘BYU? In Utah? The epicenter of American polygamy?’ or, ‘Seriously, your high school beau? There’s food in your dorm fridge that’ll last longer than your “relationship”! With four years of young women being dangled in front of him, you really think he’s going to wait for you? But I didn’t say anything.

“Anyhow, it’s no biggie. My roommate and I like to compare notes about girls rejecting us. It’s like a running joke. We even have an expression for it—‘me dio calabazas’, which means ‘she gave me pumpkins.’ We love recalling these rejections … it’s almost like keeping a scrapbook.”

Test #4 — Forty-something test subject

It occurred to us that our study should include subjects having the classic risk factors of mid-life crisis. Those in their forties, burdened with mortgages and living in fear of losing their corporate jobs, were deemed ideal. We selected our subject on the basis of his age (forty-one), life commitments (family, Bay Area mortgage), and the fact of his maintaining a non-commercial blog (apparently as a hobby). We recruited a woman of the same age to serve as the administrator, accosting subject at a barbecue. Administrator’s friend began the dialog by asking subject’s wife if she blogged; she took the bait, replying, “No, but my husband does.” Administrator promptly asked subject, acidly, with evident bewilderment and even revulsion, “Why do you blog?”

Subject was speechless for at least ten seconds, before stammering, “It’s because I’m stupid and I don’t have any friends, why do you think?” We immediately swabbed him and found unprecedented high levels of both sTNFαRII and IL-6. A quick scan of our records showed this was in fact the strongest data set of rejection-inflicted inflammation on record. Subject agreed to a brief discussion about his experience. Why, we asked him, was his reaction so strong?

“Well, first of all,” he replied, “she asked the question with such disgust, as if she were asking, ‘Why would you sniff a cat’s butt?’ I mean, ‘Why blog?’ Why do anything? Why do a crossword puzzle? Why knit? It’s like she couldn’t imagine that a person would write just to express himself, maybe improve his writing, and post his stuff to a blog in case somebody might want to read it. Her question seemed like either a rejection of the idea that I could ever offer anything of value to the literary world, or a rejection of the very existence of literary world, like the world has forgotten that there are modes of written expression that go deeper than Twitter or Facebook.”

We asked if that was all. (Subject became even more agitated and we even considered re-swabbing him.) “Isn’t that enough?” he said. Finally, after some reflection, he said, “I guess I’ll admit that, since nobody questioned the idea of my wife blogging, this woman’s incredulity was like a rejection of my masculinity. Like, why would a guy blog, you know?”

Further study is clearly warranted.

Test #5 — Forty-something test subject #2

Based on the success of the last administrator/subject pairing, we again selected a forty-something woman as the administrator and a forty-something white collar husband/father amateur blogger as the subject. This time, the venue was a high school reunion, which we felt would be a perfect setting. (We deny the assertion that this test was an attempt at getting the “high score on inflammatory activity markers”; we are simply trying to isolate acute cases for further study.) Administrator was a friend of the subject’s wife. Subject, again, was unaware that a test was being performed on him.

Administrator, behaving in a friendly manner, casually asked subject if he was on Facebook. He said he was not. She asked if he Tweeted. Again, he replied no. She asked if he did anything social online at all, and he said he had a blog. “A blog?” she said, with unmasked repugnance. “Why do you blog?”

Subject, to our surprise, was placid, even sanguine. “You mean you really don’t know why bloggers blog?” he replied. “I thought everybody knew that. It’s so that they can make fun of people to a wide audience. For example, by tomorrow everybody on the Internet will know that you went around this reunion with your bleach-blonde hair and boob job thinking you were all hot, when really you looked ridiculous because your teeth were stained purple by red wine.”

Thinking quickly, we swabbed the administrator and found sTNFαRII and IL-6 levels that were completely off the charts. Clearly, further study is warranted.

dana albert blog

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