Connections

Social Dependence and Independence

Love sick on Valentine’s Day? You already have the cure.

Love sick on Valentine's Day? You already have the cure.

   Ghouls and goblins haunt All Hallows Eve, but an even more powerful (and real) force frightens many Valentine's Day goers. Typically, people don't see it coming. It's the possibility of social rejection. If you're worried about that special someone rejecting you this Valentine's day, don't worry. You're already walking around with the cure.

   People know a lot about themselves. Humans, unlike cattle, blowfish, or dogs, have a sense of self. We know who we are, where we've been, and what we'd like to do-and avoid-in the future. But people are amazingly unaware of how they respond to momentous events like social rejection. Ask most of your friends how they would feel if their relationship ended and most will tell you that they would feel upset. They're (mostly) right. Next, ask them how long they would be upset about being rejected. This is where most people go wrong. People think it will take them longer to get over negative events like social rejection than it actually does.

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   Why? One reason, proposed originally by social psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson, is that people are unaware of psychological defenses they have that reduce negative emotions. Because people neglect the power of their "psychological immune system," they don't know that they'll get over seemingly traumatic events a lot sooner than they think they will. It's as though people have the medicine that will solve their problem, but they simply don't know it.

   Consider a brilliant experiment in which first-semester college students reported how bad they would feel 2 months after their romantic relationship ended. This predicted emotional reaction to romantic rejection was then compared with the feelings of students who had actually experienced romantic rejection over the past 2 months. The results were powerful. People estimated that, 2 months after breaking up, they would be significantly less happy than they actually were. Thus, the psychological immune system kicked in and reduced the negative emotions involved in romantic break-up, but people didn't know this would happen.

   Why are people so bad at predicting their emotional reactions to momentous events like rejection? One reason is that the "psychological immune system" operates beneath conscious awareness. People can't know how something will help them if they don't know it exists.

   Is all of this inaccuracy a bad thing? Yes and no. Anticipated emotion is a powerful thing. Many, if not most, of our behaviors are carried according to how we think those behaviors will make us feel some time in the future. Probably having all your daily thoughts center on how bad you think you might feel in the future is not a recipe for good mental health.

   At the same time, anticipated emotion drives many good behaviors. People help others, exercise, and watch what they say because they believe doing so will make them feel better in the future. When people are led to believe that helping won't change their mood, for example, they're a lot less helpful. If people knew how quickly they would recover from the dissolution of their relationship, then they might not be motivated to do nice things for their partner.

   So as you venture out to enjoy your Valentine's Day celebration, try not to worry. Regardless of how the night turns out, you should be fine.

C. Nathan DeWall is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky.

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