June 16, 2024

We everyone carries some secrets that we would rather not share with the people around us. In the same way that we may only invite visitors into the “good rooms” of our home while the rest is an absolute no-brainer, we often hide the chaos of our personal lives behind a polished facade. This can be a serious mistake, as it is precisely those vulnerabilities that can provide rich opportunities to bond with the people around us.

It is sometimes known as the “beautiful mess effect”, and one striking example of this playing out in the public sphere is in the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. At the time, even her harshest critics would have admitted that she had an uncanny ability to connect with people. And the widespread admiration for her seems to have arisen because of her vulnerabilities, rather than in spite of them. In her controversial BBC Panorama interview in 1995, for example, she discussed her husband’s infidelities, but also her struggles with mental health and her love relationships. Many of Diana’s detractors believed that she had provided the material for her own character assassination, but Diana’s popularity soared in the days following the interview, with the Daily Mirror reporting that an astonishing 92% of the public approved of her supported appearance on the program.

A growing body of research in social psychology suggests that the beautiful mess effect is a general phenomenon. We tend to be too afraid of negative reactions to our mistakes and failures, while we underestimate how many people will appreciate our honesty or courage. In general, others’ perceptions of our vulnerabilities are much more positive than we imagine.

Some of the earliest academic evidence of this comes from a slightly sadistic experiment on Cornell undergraduates. Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire about various experiences in their lives. They had to say whether they had ever ridden a unicycle or visited a foreign city – or, crucially – whether they had ever wet the bed. The participants were told immediately afterwards that a computer was preparing an automated biography of them, which would then be passed on to another student to evaluate.

In fact, the text is pre-written in a way designed to induce acute feelings of embarrassment. “Although this student is not without faults,” it said, “he sometimes has problems with bedwetting, [or she] continued to excel as a student at Cornell, and considers himself [or herself] to be a friendly, outgoing and caring person.” After it was shown, participants then had to estimate how positively they would see the new knowledge on a scale from 0 (much more negative than the average student) to 100 (much more positive than the average student). To test whether those predictions were true, the students doing the evaluation rated how much they would expect to like this person using the same scale.

We can imagine the blushes of the bedwetters as they read the printout, but the embarrassment was interpreted much more positively than they predicted. The difference was especially sharp when the new acquaintances were told about the student’s hobbies and interests. With more details to process, they seemed to give surprisingly little weight to the slightly off-putting material; on the 100-point scale, they rated them at 69, an overwhelmingly positive response.

Other research suggests that people often see a confession of vulnerability as a sign of authenticity. Dena Gromet and Emily Pronin asked Princeton students to imagine choosing a few statements that might represent their inner life to a stranger. Some were asked to choose from a list of weaknesses – such as bad temper, impulsiveness and closed-mindedness. Others were asked to select a few appropriate statements from a list of strengths, such as patience, perseverance and open-mindedness. Again, the participants were told that these statements would then be shown to another student, and were asked to predict how much that person would like them. The students who chose the weaknesses assumed, on average, that they would be liked less than those who chose the strengths. But the perceptions were generally much better than they expected. In fact, those reading the profiles gave slightly higher ratings to someone who listed their bad points. It all related to perceptions of authenticity. Being honest about their vulnerabilities made people seem more likable.

People’s appreciation for authenticity is so strong that they prefer to date someone who confess something ethically questionable as someone who deliberately evades the truth. Harvard researchers asked participants to review a potential date’s answers to a series of questions, such as whether they had knowingly transmitted an STD. As you might expect, people with a completely clean record scored the highest. However, those who simply refused to answer tended to become the worst of all.

Experiments have shown that the beautiful mess effect applies in all kinds of contexts. Expressing vulnerability can even benefit people in positions of power, who may feel the need to present a flawless image to their followers. Leaders who admit they have a potentially embarrassing weakness — such as anxiety about public speaking, or a fear of flying — scored higher on ratings of authenticity and inspire greater loyalty.

In an age when perfectly composed portraits fill our Instagram feeds, it’s worth keeping the beautiful mess effect in mind. In today’s digitally polished world, admitting your vulnerabilities can seem especially difficult. But if you can calm your inner critic and recognize that uncertainty, disappointment and frustration are universal human experiences, you’ll find it much easier to share your perceived flaws with others—whose empathetic responses can then act as a balm for your pain. . Rather than isolating us, the things that cause us shame are often a sign of our humanity, and a source of intimacy and connection.

David Robson is the author of The Laws of Connection: 13 Social Strategies That Will Transform Your Life, published by Canongate on June 6 (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Further reading

Dare a lot by Brené Brown (Penguin Life, £10.99)

The keys to kindness by Claudia Hammond (Canongate, £16.99)

Mindwise by Nicholas Epley (Penguin, £10.99)

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