Admitting mistakes, seeking help, apologising first, confessing one’s romantic feelings – all these kind of situations involve intentional expressions of vulnerability, in which we may fear being rejected or being judged negatively, yet we grit our teeth and go ahead anyway. According to a team of psychologists writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology contrary to our worst fears, having the courage to show our vulnerability in these ways will often be rewarded. That’s because there is an intriguing mismatch in the way we take a more negative view of our own vulnerability than we do of other people’s – the researchers call this “the beautiful mess effect”.
Anna Bruk and her colleagues at the University of Mannheim were inspired in part by Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead in which she argues, based on interviews she’s conducted and other qualitative evidence, that “we love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we are afraid to let them see it in us … Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me.”
To find some experimental evidence to back up this idea, and to test a possible explanation, Bruk and her team conducted seven studies with hundreds of participants. The format for many was that the participants were asked to imagine scenarios in which either they or another person displayed intentional vulnerability – such as confessing romantic love or admitting to a mistake – and then they either rated their own vulnerability (e.g. how strongly they agreed they had shown courage or weakness), or the other person’s vulnerability, respectively. Time and again, and across many different contexts, participants perceived their own vulnerability more negatively and less positively than other people’s.
Of course, asking people to imagine hypothetical scenarios is always going to lack realism. For another study, the researchers contrived matters so that participants either expected to display vulnerability themselves in a real-life situation (improvising a song in front of a jury) or they expected someone else to display that vulnerability in front of them (that is, the participant would be a member of the jury). In fact, the performance didn’t go ahead, but participants agreed it was an act of vulnerability and either rated themselves (if they were to be the singer) or they rated the other person – again, participants rated other people’s vulnerability much more positively than they rated their own.
Bruk and her team think that a key mechanism explaining this contrast in perspectives is to do with the “construal level” – they found evidence that when we think about our own vulnerability we do so very concretely (i.e. with a low construal level) whereas when we think about others’ vulnerability we do so more abstractly (i.e. with a high construal level). Previous research on so-called “construal level theory” has already shown that a higher, more abstract construal level is associated with a more positive, risk-friendly perspective, so it follows that viewing the vulnerability of others with this mindset would lead to more positive impressions.
The researchers argue their findings are important given earlier research showing the benefits of expressing vulnerability: self-disclosure can build trust, seeking help can boost learning, admitting mistakes can foster forgiveness, and confessing one’s romantic feelings can lead to new relationships.
“Even when examples of showing vulnerability might sometimes feel more like weakness from the inside, our findings indicate, that, to others, these acts might look more like courage from the outside,” Bruk and her colleagues concluded. “Given the discussed positive consequences of showing vulnerability for the relationship quality, health, or job performance, it might, indeed, be beneficial to try to overcome one’s fears and to choose to see the beauty in the mess of vulnerable situations.”
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