Have you ever been rejected by a god among men, so you just surveyed the scene and grabbed the next average dude in sight? No? Me either. Luckily, almighty science has finally gotten around to debunking this popular “rebound” wet dream of regular dudes everywhere that I’m pretty sure was never real in the first place, and is definitely a bad idea regardless. Sorry, guys.

Turns out that when a woman is rejected by a looker, rather than lasso the nearest leftovers with a thirst that couldn’t be quenched with a pallet of Gatorade, she will actually spurn the average guy waiting in the shadows even harder, because she doesn’t need that noise watering down her social value. This is true even when he’s there to dust off her sadness and remind her how beautiful she really is, how he’s always seen it, and always will see it.

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Researchers at University of Toronto conducted not one, but two studies examining this phenomenon, and wrote in the results’ abstract:

In two studies, single, heterosexual, female participants received simultaneous acceptance/rejection feedback from one physically attractive man and one less attractive man. As predicted, rejected individuals derogated their rejecters as indicated by a decreased desire for affiliation and more negative evaluations. Moreover, participants rejected by the attractive man also derogated the unattractive man even when the unattractive man offered acceptance.

I gotta say, I feel a tiny little twinge of sympathy for Less Attractive Man. His attractiveness is so up in the air, so tenuous. It’s a relative thing that can only be quantified next to a better-looking guy. He stakes his claim at the worst possible time to do so—when his intended has reached for the brass ring and fallen way short of the glory—only to find out that good intentions don’t add up to much in this economy where the better looking man’s appeal is the only currency that matters. (Cue rom-com screenplay plot where the exact opposite happens.)

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Researchers noted that “these data may shed light on specific circumstances under which rejection leads to antisocial behavior.” The theory seems to be that when rejected, most of us will look for acceptance from somewhere else *cough*rebound*cough*. Though the researchers contend that most people engage in “prosocial behaviors seemingly aimed at restoring social connection,” it isn’t always the case. Others act aggressively, or at least mope about Charlie Brown-style. They surmise that which route you take here probably all boils down to whether or not there is some acceptance out there for the taking, like, say, an ex who still loves you, or that guy from chem lab who is always staring at you.

But what’s interesting here is that the research found that even when there are backup options on standby—when acceptance is waiting right there for you, and loves you, and has always loved you—you may not want that third-rate acceptance up in your apartment loafing around on your Ikea chaise.

Why? What is wrong with you? Why can’t you see he loves you? Why isn’t his acceptance good enough? The answer is in the question. Writing at Pacific Standard on the study results, Tom Jacobs notes:

The likely reason, the researchers write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, is that accepting the overtures of a “low-status” person “may imply one is of similarly low status,” thus exacerbating the pain caused by the initial rejection.

Jacobs breaks down the particulars of the study: 126 female hetero single undergrads. They made dating profiles and were told two dudes would be looking them over, whom they could potentially meet at the end of the process. They read researcher-created profiles of the men, with photos attached: one Beefcake, one Less Attractive Man.

Jacobs:

Participants then received feedback from each of the men, indicating whether they wanted to meet. (In reality, they randomly received either a “yes” or “no” from each of the fictional males.) They then expressed whether they were interested in meeting each man, and rated both in terms of “physical attractiveness, perceived level of responsiveness, and romantic appeal.”

What happened? The women who were rejected were pretty sour grapes about it—they rated the men lower and expressed less interest in meeting them. Because no duh. However, Jacobs writes:

More importantly, “participants who were rejected by the attractive man were also relatively uninterested in meeting the unattractive man, and derogated him even when he was accepting (them),” the researchers write.”Being rejected by the attractive man appeared to make participants less willing to affiliate with the unattractive man, and more inclined to evaluate him harshly.”

This is what I believe social psychologists refer to as the sickest of burns. Jacobs quotes lead researcher Geoff MacDonald, who explained the results thusly (a second replicated study produced the same results):

“What people want is not immediate acceptance per se, but a sense of assurance that the person is acceptable to the sorts of people they want to be connected to.”

Well duh. We want the people we like to like us back, fuck everybody else. Most people are not so desperate that they will take the adoration of literally anyone just because they feel bad or couldn’t snag their first choice. We only care about the opinions of certain people—it’s called standards. Get some! They are irrational and stupid but we must navigate the world with some kind of elimination system. It’s why we care more about what complete strangers think of our looks or talents because our friends and family have to tell us nice things. It is only the love of a cold harsh world of strangers that comforts thee. Everyone knows this.

Jacobs argues that maybe these rejected women rebuild their self-esteem on the backs of their spurned admirers—and what is the world but a pecking order of rebuilt self-esteem fluffers— but, regardless, Jacobs figures this is the real essence of the study:

In any case, the results show that being rebuffed by one guy does not automatically make one open to the next guy who comes along.

Genuine question: Was it ever supposed to? Is this how men think it ought to work? Do they seem themselves as so interchangeable, so off-the-rack, so able to swoop in strategically on a down-cycle like only a Less Attractive Man would? Have they absorbed and internalized a culture that tells them they are great but disposable, and so they imagine that women can hardly tell the difference between a sexy, intelligent, ambitious, dreamy, desirable actual man and a not sexy, not smart, not ambitious, not dreamy, undesirable Less Attractive one?

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Or is it that men think the best way to a woman’s heart is through the door that a hot dude just slammed in her face because getting rejected makes all women suddenly lose all sense of standards? Finally, is there a single interpretation of these results that isn’t categorically insulting to us? Plz indicate in the comments.

Maybe the best takeaway here is sound advice for all of us: Hitting on someone after they’ve been rejected, freshly hurt, or otherwise in the throes of anything like grief, sadness, or bad times, is usually a bad idea that ranges from playing with fire to kinda daft to beyond sleazy, depending on the intent. It’s taking advantage of a vulnerable state. That is exactly the sort of thing a less attractive person would do, which of course has nothing to do with looks. That said, I would really like to see these studies replicated with alcohol.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.


Contact the author at tracy.moore@jezebel.com.