Research beyond Bruk’s and Brown’s generally supports the notion that people tend to admire vulnerability in others. When people show vulnerability at school or work, such as by asking for advice and help, they appear more competent to their advisers and supervisors—and opening up in personal relationships can even make people fall in love with each other. But there are times when being vulnerable can backfire—when it comes across less as beauty and more as straight-up mess.
A classic example is a 1966 experiment led by the psychologist Elliot Aronson. Aronson and his colleagues had students listen to recordings of candidates interviewing to be part of a quiz-bowl team. Two of the candidates appeared smart by answering most of the questions right, while the other two answered only 30 percent correctly. Then, one group of students heard an eruption of noise and clanging dishes, followed by one of the smart candidates saying, “Oh my goodness—I’ve spilled coffee all over my new suit.” Another group of students heard the same clamor, but then heard one of the mediocre candidates saying he spilled the coffee. Afterward, the students said they liked the smart candidate even more after he embarrassed himself. But the opposite was true of the mediocre candidate. The students said they liked him even less after seeing him in a vulnerable situation.
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In psychology, this is known as the “pratfall effect.” Responses to someone’s vulnerability largely seem to depend on how others perceive that person beforehand. If she appears strong and capable before showing vulnerability, people are sympathetic; the vulnerability is humanizing, like that time Jennifer Lawrence tripped on her way to accept the Best Actress award at the 2013 Oscars. But if the person doesn’t seem competent, people are repelled; she really does seem like a mess, nothing beautiful about it.
The pratfall effect can be especially pronounced in the workplace, where, in America at least, there’s been an overall push for people to open up and be “authentic.” But if you haven’t established your competence first, showing vulnerability can damage your credibility, says Lisa Rosh, a management professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York. For example, at one company Rosh studied, a woman introduced herself to her colleagues not by mentioning her credentials and education, but by talking about how she’d been awake the previous night caring for her sick baby. It took her months to reestablish her credibility. Being overly familiar at work, Rosh says, can overwhelm others and make the vulnerable person appear needy and unstable.
Whether at work or on a date, it seems safest to show vulnerability within a relationship that has some history—in which there is reciprocal sharing and the connection between two people grows in tandem with the disclosures. And yet, the truth is there’s nothing really ever safe about being vulnerable—and that’s precisely what allows for a special connection in the first place. When someone shares his hopes and anxieties on vellum paper, or admits to a mistake, or professes love to a friend at a café, that person is doing something risky, but the possibility of being hurt helps open the door to a more genuine, intimate interaction. Things might not work out in the person’s favor, but there’s still something rare and, indeed, beautiful about the gesture.
“Many of us feel like we’re barely keeping it together,” says Candy Chang, the artist who created A Monument for the Anxious and Hopeful with her partner, James A. Reeves. “But seeing some private corner of your psyche reflected in somebody else’s handwriting on a wall can be incredibly reassuring. It’s a reminder of the humanity in the faces around us.”