The 'beautiful mess' effect: other people view our vulnerability more positively than we do
Psychologists have found that, while we tend to judge our own vulnerability more harshly, we perceive vulnerability in others as courage.
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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Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
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