The inaugural Mind Gym Academic Award for new thinking in practical psychology was awareded to Brooke Feeney, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon. (Mind Gym’s mission involves helping people succeed with the aid and insights of rigorous psychological research.)
In our individualistic, strict-father, tough-love, dispositionist world, “dependence” is a major stigma. God forbid we should let on that we are anything other than self-made, self-motivated, self-reliant and, well, selfish. “See those bootstraps, loser? Start pulling!”
Brooke Feeney’s fascinating findings (which, in February’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, she calls the “dependency paradox”) challenges the conventional wisdom regarding how to respond to another’s dependence. That article describes two studies exploring how people can sometimes cultivate a greater sense of independence in their relationship partners by providing support to the partner – and accepting their dependence – when needed.
John Naish, for The (London) Times, summarized the research this way:
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[Feeney’s] study of 115 volunteer couples over six months stuffs the notion of stiff upper lips. Instead it suggests that people with needy partners can create a beneficient cycle: by offering constant support the partners start to feel more confident that they can live without stabilisers.
Feeney asked her volunteer couples about each other’s needs and support levels. She then observed them interacting naturally, and in lab experiments when they were encouraged to seek support from each other. She followed the couples for six months to ascertain their levels of dependency or independence and found that, in general, the greater the spousal support, the greater the independence. “It is much easier for people to do things that enhance their personal growth – such as accepting challenges, trying new things and taking risks – when they know that someone is available to comfort and assist them if things go wrong,” says Feeney, who flew to Britain to accept her prize this week.
“Just as an individual driving a car without an insurance policy may be reluctant to drive long distances or to take unnecessary risks because there will be a heavy price to pay if something goes wrong, so, too, are individuals reluctant to take independent excursions away from a partner who does not provide good ‘coverage’ in an emergency.”
Feeney believes that her findings have broad potential for relationship counselling: “Simply telling people about the important role they play in promoting their partners’ wellbeing is likely to make them more mindful of their behaviour and of the impact it has on others.”
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For Naish’s entire article, click here. For an earlier post discussing the situational factors influencing whether we respond to others’ needs, see “Thinking the Situation into Legal Theory.” To read about the research that took second place in the Mind Gym competition, see “First Dates and Feeling Good.”