Have you ever sat up all night and worried about someone?
I sure have. Especially if I knew they were doing something particularly risky or dangerous, like driving a long distance when the weather was bad.
In one instance, a loved one was several hours late arriving home, and I couldn’t get a hold of them by phone (not normal at all for them).
Those have been some of the darkest times I’ve ever experienced.
I can remember times when I myself have taken similar risks, driving a long distance in inclement weather, and while there were some definite wheel-gripping moments, it wasn’t nearly as stressful as when I was in the other role. When I was the one waiting and worrying.
Well, as it turns out, this isn’t some odd quirk I have. This is apparently how people operate in general.
We Worry More About Other People’s Safety Than Our Own, Especially When We Care About them
A recent study looked into the anxiety surrounding people’s risk-taking behavior versus their anxiety surrounding other people taking risks via the same behavior. In an initial and several followup replication, a reliable pattern held:
People were made considerably more anxious when others took risks than when they themselves took the same risks. One study even demonstrated that this pattern held when a person and their partner were engaging in the same risky behavior together — they still worried more about their partner than about themselves. They also in general were less likely to want their partner to engage in those risky behaviors than for them to do it themselves.
Interestingly, they also predicted more serious possible consequences of the risk for their partners than they did when asked that question about themselves (possibly accounting for the difference in anxiety levels).
It’s also worth noting that the researchers also found that this effect wasn’t simply limited to significant others. They studied people participants were close to, somewhat close to, and also somewhat distant and found increased anxiety relative to their own risk-tasking in all cases, although the closer the person was to participants, the more anxious they became at that person’s risk-taking behavior.
A further study even found that people were less emotionally anxious about long drives their partner took on days when they felt less emotionally close to their partner (relationship rough spots, etc.) and that they felt more emotionally anxious on days when they felt closer to their partner.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.
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