Social rejection is a painful event that often increases aggression. However, the neural mechanisms of this rejection–aggression link remain unclear. A potential clue may be that rejected people often recruit the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex’s (VLPFC) self-regulatory processes to manage the pain of rejection. Using functional MRI, we replicated previous links between rejection and activity in the brain’s mentalizing network, social pain network and VLPFC. VLPFC recruitment during rejection was associated with greater activity in the brain’s reward network (i.e. the ventral striatum) when individuals were given an opportunity to retaliate. This retaliation-related striatal response was associated with greater levels of retaliatory aggression. Dispositionally aggressive individuals exhibited less functional connectivity between the ventral striatum and the right VLPFC during aggression. This connectivity exerted a suppressing effect on dispositionally aggressive individuals’ greater aggressive responses to rejection. These results help explain how the pain of rejection and reward of revenge motivate rejected people to behave aggressively.
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This work was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (award # DA05312; Lynam, Milich and DeWall), the Foundation for Personality and Social Psychology’s Heritage Initiative (Chester), and the Robert S. Lipman Research Fund for the Prevention of Drug and Alcohol Abuse (Chester).
Chester, David S.; Lynam, Donald R.; Milich, Richard; and DeWall, C. Nathan, "Neural Mechanisms of the Rejection-Aggression Link" (2018). Psychology Faculty Publications. 151.