This is it: the moment of truth. Maybe you’ve got to apologize for a screw-up, or ask for a favor, or tell someone how you really feel about them. Whatever your specific situation, the fact is that at some point in your life, you’re going to have to make yourself vulnerable, and it’s not going to be fun. Even if it all goes well in the end, making yourself vulnerable is awkward, and you end up judging yourself harshly for it later. What’s weird is that when you see somebody else displaying vulnerability, you judge them too — except in that case, it’s positive. As it turns out, there’s a word — and a reason — for that effect.
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Putting It All Out There
Being vulnerable comes in a lot of different flavors. It might look like asking your crush out on a date, or volunteering to go first at karaoke, or trying to mend a broken friendship. It takes a lot of bravery to risk hurt feelings, harsh criticism, or outright rejection, so perhaps it’s not surprising that we would have such a hard time leaping into vulnerability. What’s interesting, though, is the well-documented fact that most of the time, showing vulnerability works out in the vulnerable person’s favor.
Inspired by the work of Brené Brown, whose speech “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the top-watched TED talks ever, psychologist Anna Bruk and her colleagues at the University of Mannheim set out to find out why we value vulnerability in others while shying from it ourselves. They call this phenomenon the “beautiful mess effect.”
First, the team had to document the effect. Their report involved putting people in both real and hypothetical situations that would require a degree of vulnerability from them. For example, one of the studies asked participants to imagine a scenario such as confessing romantic feelings or admitting a mistake, then rate the courage that such an action displayed. In some scenarios, it was the participant performing the action; in others, it was some imaginary person. Over and over again, other people were rated as showing more courage than the participants themselves.
Of course, that’s just a hypothetical situation. Things might be different in a real-world scenario. For another study in the series, the researchers told participants that they would be a part of a live, impromptu concert. In some versions, they were told that they would be the ones singing in front of a jury; others had them believing they’d be watching someone else as a member of the jury. In none of these cases was anyone actually asked to sing, but once again, participants consistently rated the strangers as showing more bravery than they themselves did — even though they were theoretically going to be asked to do the same exact thing.
Take a Step Back
So why would it be that a person would judge the same act to be braver and more laudable when somebody else does it? According to the team, it all comes down to a person’s construal levels. Your construal level is measured in relation to your distance from a particular event, be it physical, psychological, temporal, or hypothetical. For example, if you’re imagining a person being asked to juggle on the other side of the world 100 years ago, your relationship to that act of juggling would have a very high construal level. Asked to imagine yourself juggling in the next hour, and your construal level is suddenly very low.
As it turns out, when you view something with a low construal level, you’re more likely to focus on the ancillary details and mitigating factors — things like “I had a sore throat last night,” “I’ve never sung this song in front of people,” or “These people might hate my voice.” But if you imagine singing in front of other people with a high construal level (like if you think it’s going to be someone else singing), you’re more likely to focus on the broader, general picture: “Singing in front of other people is a brave thing to do.” So if you need to muster up the courage to do something risky, maybe the secret will be to take a step back and imagine somebody else doing it — if they can, so can you!
By Reuben Westmaas