What is it about vulnerable people that draws us in and makes us want to comfort and protect them? Moreover, why are they attractive to us?

In the past, those that showed their vulnerability were mocked and shunned for being weak. These days, you only have to spill your guts and we gravitate around. We soak up the gory details like hungry sponges. So what’s changed? Why are vulnerable people suddenly the new superheroes?

Vulnerable People in the Media

You only have to look at the media to understand the slow and subtle way celebrities are being portrayed. And mark my words, if it’s happening to celebs, it will filter down to us normal folk.

Remember when Charlie Sheen had his mad episode a few years back? He went on a media rampage, saying he was ‘winning’ and drinking tiger blood. Even his close friends feared for his sanity. But all was not well with Charlie. He had HIV and was being blackmailed into keeping it a secret. But then he fessed up. Suddenly, the world went from backing away from his weirdness to welcoming him with open arms.

Psychologists call this the ‘beautiful mess effect’. This is where, despite our fears, if we are brave enough to show our vulnerable side, people will reward us.

The Beautiful Mess Effect

This is a great amount of evidence to support this theory. Dr. Brené Brown explores this theory in her book – ‘Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead‘.

She examines how the world is shifting from achieving perfection to embracing our differences. That includes our imperfections. More importantly, by acknowledging that we are vulnerable, we encourage honesty and truth in others.

“Every time we are introduced to someone new, try to be creative, or start a difficult conversation, we take a risk. We feel uncertain and exposed. We feel vulnerable. Most of us try to fight those feelings – we strive to appear perfect.” Dr Brené Brown

Studies of Vulnerability

One study wanted to further the work by Dr. Brown. Anna Bruk and her team at the University of Mannheim conducted studies with hundreds of participants. They were asked to imagine several different scenarios. In all the scenarios, either they or someone else showed their vulnerability. The scenarios ranged from:

  • Admitting a mistake
  • Blushing in public
  • Apologising first
  • Confessing to being in love
  • Asking for help
  • Revealing something about their body that they didn’t like

In all the studies, participants viewed revealing their own vulnerability as a sign of weakness. However, when other people did it they viewed it as a sign of courage. But what makes us look at vulnerability in others as courageous and brave yet in ourselves as weak?

“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.” Dr. Brown

Why do we think vulnerable people are attractive but not ourselves?

So why do we think differently when we rate our own vulnerability compared to others? Bruk believes it has something to do with perspectives or psychological distances. But first, we need to know about construal levels and how psychological distances affect them.

Construal Levels

The construal level is the method in which we mentally view a situation. The way we construct it in our minds. We can do it in a very concrete way or an abstract way.

Psychological Distance

The one factor that influences the construal level is the psychological distance. Construal levels vary with greater psychological distances.

For example, if you are planning a holiday for next year, you will feel a greater psychological distance than if you were going on holiday the next day. Those travelling the next day will use very concrete representations such as imagining the hotel, the restaurants and the villa. Whereas anyone planning a holiday for next year will use abstract constructs such as imagining the fun and relaxation.

Concrete and Abstract Construal Levels

Research has shown that when we think about vulnerability in ourselves, we do so in a very concrete way. Conversely, when we think about vulnerable people, we do so in an abstract way. More interestingly, further studies reveal that higher abstract levels are associated with a more positive perspective.

So does this mean that because we can psychologically distance ourselves from other people we can view them in a more positive light? Researchers believe there is more to it than just removing ourselves out of the equation.

Why vulnerability is a good thing

Perhaps it is our vulnerabilities that make us human and allow others a glimpse into who we really are that is attractive. Our society is built around being the best, having a perfect face and body, not showing emotion or weakness when things go wrong. Now, all of a sudden, vulnerability is the new strength.

Maybe we are finally getting a little tired of people who are perfect at everything and we just want a little honesty for a change. People who show that they make mistakes, that they are not the best at everything, that they are human, these are the ones that are getting our respect. And why? Because we recognise ourselves in them and we feel grateful to them for admitting their failures. Because it lets the rest of us off to take a breather.

As Bruk says,

“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.”

Vulnerable People Are Human

Admitting our mistakes, showing our emotions, revealing our true loves are all things that make us better human beings. And in an increasingly fractured society, that can only be a good thing. We are showing our true selves to other people, usually our nearest and dearest.

What do we gain by hiding away our true feelings? How do we learn that others love us, can help us, can teach us when we don’t reveal the truth inside us?

I’ll leave the last word to Bruk and her team:

“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.”

References:

  1. http://www.psych.nyu.edu
  2. https://www.theatlantic.com

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