The Big Idea: why you shouldn’t be afraid of being a mess

 <span>Illustration: Elia Barbieri/The Guardian</span>
Illustration: Elia Barbieri/The Guardian

We all carry some secrets that we would rather not share with the people around us. In much the same way that we may only invite visitors into the “good rooms” of our house while the rest is an absolute tip, we often hide the chaos of our personal lives behind a polished facade. This may be a serious mistake, since it’s precisely those vulnerabilities that can offer rich opportunities to bond with the people around us.

This is sometimes known as the “beautiful mess effect”, and one striking example of it 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 incredible capacity 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 affairs. 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 after the interview, with the Daily Mirror reporting that an astonishing 92% of the public supported her appearance on the programme.

A growing body of research in social psychology suggests that the beautiful mess effect is a common phenomenon. We tend to be overly fearful of negative reactions to our flaws and failures, while underestimating how much people will appreciate our honesty or courage. In general, others’ perceptions of our vulnerabilities are far 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. Straight afterwards, the participants were told that a computer was busy preparing an automated biography of them, which would then be passed on to another student to evaluate.

In reality, the text was pre-written in a way designed to produce acute feelings of embarrassment. “Although this student is not without faults,” it said, “occasionally having some difficulties with bed wetting, he [or she] has continued to excel as a student at Cornell, and considers himself [or herself] to be a friendly, outgoing and caring person.” Having been shown it, participants then had to estimate how positively the new acquaintance would view them on a scale of 0 (much more negatively than the average student) to 100 (much more positively than the average student). To test if those predictions were true, the students doing the evaluation rated how much they would expect to like this person using the same scale.

People would prefer to date someone who confesses to something ethically dubious than someone who deliberately evades the truth

We can imagine the bedwetters’ blushes as they read the printout, but the embarrassing information was interpreted far more positively than they predicted. The difference was particularly stark 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 picking a few statements that might represent their inner life to a stranger. Some were asked to select from a list of weaknesses – like bad temper, impulsivity, and closed-mindedness. Others were asked to pick a few apt statements from a list of strengths, such as patience, perseverance and open-mindedness. Once 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. On average, the students picking the weaknesses assumed they would be liked less than those who had chosen the strengths. But the perceptions were generally much better than they’d expected. In fact, those reading the profiles gave slightly higher ratings to someone who had listed their bad points. This was all related to perceptions of authenticity. Being honest about their vulnerabilities made people seem more likable.

People’s appreciation of authenticity is so strong that they would prefer to date someone who confesses to something ethically dubious than someone who deliberately evades the truth. Harvard researchers asked participants to review a potential date’s responses to a series of questions such as whether they had knowingly transmitted an STD. As you might expect, people with a totally clean record scored highest. Those who simply refused to answer, however, tended to be rated 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 to a potentially embarrassing weakness – such as anxiety about public speaking, or a fear of flying – score more highly on ratings of authenticity and inspire greater loyalty.

In an age when perfectly curated portraits fill our Instagram feeds, it’s worth keeping the beautiful mess effect in mind. In today’s digitally polished world, acknowledging your vulnerabilities can seem especially difficult. But if you can calm your inner critic and recognise that insecurity, disappointment and frustration are universal human experiences, you will find it far easier to share your perceived flaws with others – whose empathetic reactions may then act as a balm to 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 6 June (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Further reading

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown (Penguin Life, £10.99)

The Keys to Kindness by Claudia Hammond (Canongate, £16.99)

Mindwise by Nicholas Epley (Penguin, £10.99)