The Insecurity Advantage

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We’ve been led to believe that the surest way to impress the ladies (or the men, depending) is to have self-confidence: an inner assurance that you are a pretty datable person, all things considered. Not so! Equally—if not more—effective, at least these days, is to be truly, almost obsessively insecure.

We know this because of a new study co-authored by Claudia Brumbaugh, a young psychology professor at Queens College. She came to the research out of her curiosity about relationships her friends had discussed. “Just generally, I’m interested in relationships with insecure people,” she says. She set out to answer a basic but vexing question: How do insecure people attract others? After recruiting 146 single university students, she had them fill out a questionnaire on how confident they felt in their everyday lives. The students then watched video segments that featured an attractive man or woman they were told was looking for a lunch date. These good-looking people asked questions like: How would you get an attractive person’s attention? How would you talk to this person? And finally, and portentously: Do you tend to worry about the relationships you’re in?

The study participants were given the opportunity to flirt with their videotaped interlocutors. Brumbaugh scored the subjects’ repartee based on 26 different criteria, among them eye contact and flattery. When she combined this data with the pre-video psychological assessments, she found something surprising.

The students who had rated themselves as self-confident tended to bring to their courting tactics a hey-this-is-who-I-am approach that can come off as arrogant. The insecure, Brumbaugh found, are never that dumb. They seem to be acutely attentive to the other person’s needs. They share of themselves; they appear interesting, because they want desperately to seem that way. “Insecure individuals [present] themselves as warm, engaging, and humorous people,” Brumbaugh writes in the paper, published in the journal Personal Relationships. The self-confident may have these traits, too, but they’ll stop working so hard when their game’s not proving successful.

Insecure people don’t give up so easily. The same hyperawareness that attends their daily lives—always dressing of-the-moment, always listening to the right new band—also helps when talking with a potential boyfriend or girlfriend. It may be that the insecure are able to perceive how they’re being perceived, then mask their undesirable traits, or at the least counteract them with knowing jokes on the array of topics that their insecurities force them to stay up on. “There seem to be,” says Brumbaugh, “these interesting side effects of being insecure.”

The only problem is that the insecure are eventually found out. “Insecurity leads to problems like poor communications, and anxious people in particular are jealous,” Brumbaugh says. It’s worth noting that Brumbaugh’s fiancé, when they first met, was living in the city’s flannel-covered bastion of self-doubt: Williamsburg. But, she insists, “he has a more forceful personality.”

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The Insecurity Advantage