Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Dec 19, 2019

How to Make an Insecure Person Believe You Genuinely Care About Them

by Kassandra Cortes & Joanne V. Wood
Young woman talking with her friend

Some people seem to lack confidence that their partners love and value them and will be there for them in times of need. You have probably known those people: It doesn’t matter what you say to them, it is never enough to convince them of your love. We call those people “low trust” because they don’t trust that they are worthy of love.

Research shows that people low in trust have difficulty accepting loving gestures. Why? We and other researchers suspect that it’s because low trust people do not always believe that people’s loving actions are genuine (“You brought me flowers? What did you do?!”) or because they perceive others’ caring acts as too threatening. For example, receiving praise that is inconsistent with their own views sometimes makes people feel anxious and defensive, and may cause them to overthink it.

So what should you do if you have a low trust partner and you want to show them love? Our new research suggests that, in order for low trust people to feel cared for, the care act should be subtle. We thought that one way to send a subtle care signal might be to ask a partner: “How was your day?” Being asked about one’s day should not feel threatening or cause low trust people to overthink its meaning. It should fly under the low trust person’s defensive radar. Thus, asking “How was your day?” conveys care because it expresses interest in the other person’s life but doesn’t threaten the low trust partner. 

We tested this idea across five studies. In one study, we surveyed participants in the evening. We measured participant’s level of trust using a questionnaire and had them indicate whether their partner asked them about their day on that very day. We then asked participants how satisfied they felt in their relationships. Our results showed that when people lower in trust were asked about their day, they felt more satisfied than when their partners did not ask about their day.

In another study, we brought couples into our research facility and had them work on separate tasks. One partner (whom we labeled the “receiver”) spent 20 minutes working on puzzle tasks. The other partner (the “note-writer”) was asked by the experimenter to copy a scripted note in their own handwriting so that their partner would think that they had written the note. Participants were asked to copy one of two versions of the note. Both versions were positively toned, but one version included a sentence asking about the task the partner was doing, and the other version did not ask about the partner’s task.

The experimenter then took the note to the “receiver” partner to read. After reading the note, receivers answered questions on the computer, one of which asked how much they felt cared for by their partners. Participants lower in trust reported feeling more cared for by their partners when they received a note from their partner that asked about their task, compared to when the note did not ask about their task. People high in trust felt cared for regardless of whether the note asked about their task or not.

These findings suggest that asking “How was your day?” is one simple and easy way to convey care to a person who is lower in trust. One important caveat: The couples in our research were generally highly satisfied in their relationships, which could mean that asking “How was your day?” may be effective only for relationships that are already doing well. In troubled relationships, asking “How was your day?” may have not improve partners’ perceptions of care. We need to do more research to know for sure. In any case, our findings strongly suggest that if you are in a loving relationship with a partner who has trouble accepting that you care enough, the simple task of asking your partner about his or her day may make a real difference.

For Further Reading

Cortes, K. & Wood, J. V. (2019). How was your day? Conveying care, but under the radar, for people lower in trust. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 83, 11-22.

Kassandra Cortes is an Assistant Professor at Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research focuses on close relationship dynamics using motivational and social-cognitive frameworks.

Joanne V. Wood is a University Professor at the University of Waterloo. Her research focuses on how relationship processes are shaped by personality dimensions and social contexts.


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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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