Dispositional Pathways to Trust: The Interactive Effects of Self-Esteem and Agreeableness on Trust and Negative Emotional Disclosure
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Expressing our innermost thoughts and feelings is critical to the development of intimacy (Reis & Shaver, 1988), but also risks negative evaluation and rejection. According to risk regulation theory (Murray, Holmes, & Collins, 2006), trust—confidence in a partner’s love and caring—provides people with the sense of security needed to reach out to intimate partners. Past research has identified self-esteem, one’s global feelings of self-worth, as a key dispositional predictor of trust. However, I suspected that there may be more to the story. Specifically, trust may consist of two components: the belief that one is worthy of others’ love and the belief that others are trustworthy people. Although self-esteem governs the first component, I propose that agreeableness—a trait that concerns one’s level of communal orientation to others—governs the latter. I examined this possibility by exploring how both self-esteem and agreeableness may predict a particularly risky and intimate form of self-disclosure: the disclosure of emotional distress. In six studies using correlational, partner-report, and experimental methods, I demonstrate that self-esteem and agreeableness interact in a catalytic manner to predict disclosure: People who are high in both self-esteem and agreeableness are most openly disclosing of their emotional distress. I also found evidence that trust mediates this effect: High self-esteem, highly agreeable people are most self-revealing, it seems because they are especially trusting of their partner’s caring. Self-esteem and agreeableness were particularly important for the disclosure of vulnerable emotions (i.e., sadness; Study 5) and disclosures that were especially risky (Study 6). These findings indicate that self-esteem is not the only trait that governs risky relationship behaviours and illustrate how dispositional variables can work together to explain behaviour in close relationships.