Real and fictional social rejections evoke associated and relatively congruent psychophysiological responses

Sirke Seppänen, University of Helsinki, Finland (
Tapio Toivanen, University of Helsinki, Finland (

Background: Theater-based practices are used to simulate everyday social interactions for learning purposes (e.g., in the field of teacher-child interaction). Here, theater-based improvisation training was applied to develop student teachers’ professional social interaction skills for working with children in early childhood and school settings.

Aim:  To investigate how the awareness of fiction influences the experience of becoming rejected.

Method: We used a theater-based improvisation method to recreate dyadic interactions while measuring psychophysiological responses elicited by real (interview) and fictional (improvisation exercises) social rejections. Student teachers’ (n = 39) heart rate, skin conductance, facial muscle activity and electrocortical activity (EEG alpha asymmetry) were analysed during varied social rejections (devaluing, interrupting, nonverbal rejection).

Results: Psychophysiological responses in real and fictional conditions were associated, with heart rate showing the strongest association. Both real and fictional rejections evoked negative EEG alpha asymmetry, which is related to behavioural withdrawal motivation. Nonverbal rejections generated the most similar responses. Heart rate was the only measure to differentiate real and fictional nonverbal rejections, showing a lower heart rate in fictional condition.

Conclusions: The findings of this study show that psychophysiological responses during improvisation exercises are relatively congruent with the same kind of real-world responses, regardless of cognitive awareness of fiction. Consequently, the results provide novel, neuroscientific evidence for the application of improvisation as an experiential method to study real-world social encounters and to include theater-based practices in teacher education curricula to enhance student teacher’s social interaction competence.

Implications for children: We educators care about your feelings and work so that you would be happy every day. We understand how sad you feel if someone behaves badly or would not listen to what you were saying. We are really interested in your ideas and want to hear what you think and how you feel.

Implications for families: Educators know how important it is to listen to and value your child’s initiatives. We understand the effects of rejective behaviour, and we are committed to be responsive and to encourage children’s imagination.

Implications for practitioners: You can practise challenging interpersonal situations, for instance, social rejections, via theatre-based practises and learn adaptive and constructive behaviour. Especially improvisation training strengthens your sensitivity in listening to children’s needs and initiatives as well as creativity in teacher-child interaction.

Key words: communication, quantitative methods, improvisation, social rejection, drama education, experiential learning, fiction

This presentation relates to the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: