Over the past year, visitors to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City have been revealing their deepest fears and wishes. As part of a special exhibit, museum-goers were invited to write down their secrets on small pieces of vellum paper and hang the entries on a wall for everyone to see. On one side, people posted their anxieties; on the other side, their hopes. Thousands of visitors contributed lines like, “I’m anxious because I’m afraid I’ll die alone,” “I’m anxious because I might miss my chance to become a mom,” and “I’m hopeful because life is beautiful and I will feel happy soon.”
This exhibit, A Monument for the Anxious and Hopeful, which was on view from February 2018 until earlier this week, was a catalog of anonymous confessions, a place where people willingly exposed their weaknesses and flaws: “I’m anxious because I don’t have a home for my boys”; “I’ve relapsed three times since trying to become sober”; “I feel like I disappoint everyone in my life.” These more than 50,000 entries expressed thoughts that many people wouldn’t otherwise share publicly due to fear of rejection and shame.
But psychological research suggests that such fear can be overblown in people’s minds. Often, there’s a mismatch between how people perceive their vulnerabilities and how others interpret them. We tend to think showing vulnerability makes us seem weak, inadequate, and flawed—a mess. But when others see our vulnerability, they might perceive something quite different, something alluring. A recent set of studies calls this phenomenon “the beautiful mess effect.” It suggests that everyone should be less afraid of opening up—at least in certain cases.
The researchers—Anna Bruk, Sabine G. Scholl, and Herbert Bless of the University of Mannheim in Germany—found evidence for the beautiful mess effect across six studies involving hundreds of participants. Inspired by the work of Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work who popularized the importance of vulnerability in her books and TED Talks, Bruk and her colleagues define vulnerability as the willingness to expose yourself emotionally to another person despite being afraid and despite the risks. In their studies, the team asked participants to imagine themselves in a variety of vulnerable situations—such as confessing romantic feelings to your best friend, being the first to apologize to your romantic partner after a big fight, and admitting that you made a serious mistake to your team at work. When people imagined themselves in those situations, they tended to believe that showing vulnerability would make them appear weak and inadequate. But when people imagined someone else in those situations, they were more likely to describe showing vulnerability as “desirable” and “good.”
The results, which were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, lined up with Brown’s findings in her qualitative research that vulnerability is humanizing. “We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people,” Brown writes in her book Daring Greatly, “but we’re afraid to let them see it in us.”
In another study, Bruk and her team invited students into the lab and broke them into two groups. Those in one group were asked (vulnerability alert!) to sing an improvised song in front of a jury, while those in the other were asked to serve as members of that jury. It was a bluff; in the end, no one sang or judged. But before the participants realized that they were being had, they answered some questions about vulnerability. Those in the singing group saw their anticipated vulnerability more negatively, endorsing statements such as “When I show my vulnerability, other people find it repellant” and “I should avoid showing my vulnerability.” The judges were far more generous when they evaluated the vulnerability of the singers, saying that their singing would be a sign of “strength” and “courage.”
To find out why this gap exists, Bruk and her team tested a theory about how the human mind processes information. They found that when we think about our own vulnerability, it’s more concrete and real, because we are so close to it. Under that magnified perspective, our imperfections are clearer, and it’s easier to identify everything that might go wrong. But when we think about another person’s vulnerability, it’s more distant and abstract. We can take a wider perspective that allows us to see not just the bad, but the good as well.
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.
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.”