When you take a long car drive, who is more worried about your safety—you or someone close to you, such as your partner or your mother? One might think it would be you. After all, it’s your safety that’s on the line. However, our research suggests otherwise.

To study how people react to their own and others’ risks, we wrote descriptions of several situations involving common behaviors that may carry a certain amount of risk, such as travelling to an unsafe country, flying with a low cost airline, or driving after having dinner with a few drinks. We created three versions of these descriptions that differed only in who was engaging in the risky behaviors. In one version, it was the person reading the description. In a second version, it was someone close to the person, such as their partner. In a third version, it was an emotionally distant person, such as an acquaintance.

Our research participants were randomly assigned to read the descriptions in one of the three versions. We asked them to put themselves in each of the situations and answer several questions, such as “How anxious are you that something bad will happen to you (or your partner, your acquaintance)?” and “To what extent do you think that you (or your partner, your acquaintance) should implement the behavior as intended?”

In all studies that we conducted, we found the same pattern: Participants who were led to think about someone close to them doing the risky behaviors reported being more anxious than participants who were led to think about doing the behaviors themselves (or about a distant other doing the risky behaviors). And, partly due to their higher anxiety, participants thought that the person close to them should engage in the risky behaviors less than they thought it was appropriate to engage in them themselves. They seemed to say, “It’s fine if I do it, but you really shouldn’t!”  We found this pattern for both women and men and for all kinds of close relationships.

In one study, participants were asked to name a person who was emotionally close to them. Some people named a parent, some named a close friend, others a partner or a sibling. Who they named—and who was involved in the situation that was described—did not change the results: People always worried more, on average, about the close other than themselves.

We also studied this effect in real life in the context of driving, a frequent, everyday behavior that carries risk. We asked couples to complete short questionnaires on a day on which one of the two partners took a longer car drive without the other. We asked the driver “How worried are you about your safety on this car drive?” and asked their partner “How worried are you about your partner’s safety on this car drive?” Comparing ratings of anxiety in the two roles confirmed the result of the prior studies: Participants were more anxious about the upcoming car drive when in the role of the left-behind partner than when in the role of the driver.

But why does this difference occur? At first, we thought it might be because of the “optimistic bias,” in which people irrationally think that there is a lower likelihood that something bad will happen to them than to other people. But we were wrong. Differences in participants’ estimates of the likelihood of encountering bad outcomes and differences in their estimates of control over the risky situations did not explain why people were more anxious about their close others than themselves.

A more likely explanation is suggested by a study in which we asked participants to list three possible consequences of each of the behaviors. Participants who were led to think about another person’s risky behavior listed more severe consequences (such as “He or she could have a fatal accident”) than participants who were led to think about their own risky behavior (such as “I might cause damage to the car”). Thinking of more severe consequences for other people than for oneself partly explained why people were more anxious about their close others than themselves. However, this finding needs to be replicated in future studies.

What do we learn from these findings? In short, we learn that there is a systematic difference in people’s emotional response to risks depending on who takes them. On the one hand, this might be an expression of affection and concern in close relationships. On the other hand, setting different standards for one's own behavior and the behavior of others can lead to conflict. Although the implications for close relationships await further research, what we can already say today is that you should drive safely and call your partner or mom when you get there. You might want them to do the same one day.

For Further Reading

Ghassemi, M.*, Bernecker, K.*, & Brandstätter, V. (2020). “Take care, honey!”: People are more anxious about their significant others’ risk behavior than about their own. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 86.  doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2019.103879 (*shared first authorship)

Markman, A.  (2019, December 16). You worry more about significant others than yourself [Online Article Featured in Psychology Today]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/ulterior-motives/201912/you-worry-more-about-significant-others-yourself

Mirjam Ghassemi and Katharina Bernecker are senior research assistants at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. They study motivation and emotion in close relationships.