Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. C. Nathan DeWall


Aggression is a dynamic and costly feature of human behavior. One reliable cause of aggression is social rejection, though the underlying mechanisms of this effect remain to be fully understood. Previous research has identified two psychological processes that are independently linked to aggressive retaliation: pain and pleasure. Given recent findings that pain magnifies the experience of pleasure, I predicted that the pain of rejection would promote the pleasure of aggression and thus, aggression itself. I also expected that this indirect effect of aggressive pleasure would only be observed among individuals with weaker self-regulatory abilities that are necessary to cope with rejection’s sting. To test these hypotheses, I performed a functional neuroimaging experiment in which I acquired neural signatures of social pain and aggressive pleasure, as well as behavioral measures of aggression itself and self-regulatory abilities. Using a moderated-mediation approach, I observed that, among individuals high in self-regulatory abilities, neural signatures of social pain predicted less aggressive retaliation in response to social rejection. This effect was mediated by reduced activity in the brain’s reward network during retaliatory aggression. Among individuals low in self-regulatory abilities, no such effects on aggression were observed. These findings suggest that social pain can buffer individuals against aggressive behavior, but only when people have the self-regulatory ability to do so. Much of human action is motivated by pain and pleasure, understanding their roles in aggression is a critical step in eliminating such violence.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)