In a recent episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (titled "Palestinian Chicken"), Larry makes a deal with his friend: Larry won't have to pay for the damage he made to his friend's car as long as he tells his friend's critical, nagging wife how annoying it is when she says "LOL." Why the deal? Larry's friend is scared to death of his wife and thinks Larry is the man for the job. He admires Larry's willingness to always say the first thing on his mind and speak up for himself.
In the parlance of psychological science, Larry is off-the-charts blirtatious and his friend is off-the-charts not. BLIRT is actually an acronym for Brief Loquacious and Interpersonal Responsiveness Test. High "blirters" express themselves easily in social situations, have little difficulty responding to others and do so quickly. Low blirters, on the other hand, are more reflective, cautious when expressing themselves emotionally and are constantly fearful of saying the wrong thing. In recent years, psychologist William Swann and his colleagues have studied this trait, and their findings are fascinating.
Blirtatiousness can be measured. The BLIRT (Brief Loquaciousness and Interpersonal Responsiveness Test) includes items such as "I always say what's on my mind," and "If I have something to say, I don't hesitate to say it." Those scoring high on the blirt scale report higher levels of assertiveness, extraversion, self-esteem, self-liking, self-competence and positive effect. They also report lower levels of rumination, shyness, fear of negative evaluation, neuroticism and negative emotions compared to lower blirt scorers.
The blirt scale predicts all sorts of things you would expect. Car salesmen and Americans score higher on the blirt scale than librarians and Asians. In telephone conversations between strangers, higher blirters respond more frequently, rapidly and effusively than low blirters.
There are also health consequences. In one study, a person (who was actually an actor) chatted incessantly on a cell phone while the participants were trying to complete the experiment. High blirters were more likely to say something to the person but stayed calm, whereas low blirters were silent but became more physiologically aroused (as indexed by blood pressure). The high blirters were seen by the others as more competent, sociable, emotionally reactive and extraverted than low blirters.
Therefore, blirtatiousness can act as an amplifier of human traits, making one's emotional state and personality more salient. Of course, this means there are tradeoffs to being blirtatious. Those who are blirtatious are initially perceived better but open themselves up to having their bad sides exposed more easily, whereas low blirters may start off with less-favorable impressions but are better at hiding their deficiencies.
Blirters in Love
Blirtatiousness also has strong implications for romantic relationships. While two blirtatious partners can make for a good match, couples in which the woman is more blirtatious than the man -- "precarious couples" -- are less intimate and satisfied than any other couple pairing.
Precarious couples experience particular discord when the woman is critical and stress levels are high. Under high levels of stress, the woman in a precarious couple becomes more critical, and her inhibited partner withdraws. This withdrawal often backfires, though, because it decreases the chances for healthy communication. This sends the relationship on a downward spiral. Indeed, this "woman demand-man withdraw" communication pattern is frequent among precarious couples, and is a key predictor of divorce. Another communication problem for those in precarious relationships is the lack of "mutual constructive communication," which happens when couples discuss a problem, express their feelings and negotiate without resorting to blaming or verbal aggression. There's hardly any mutual constructive communication among precarious couples.
Members of precarious couples are also unsuccessful in managing stress. In one study, 67 married women were put under stress. When they were reunited with their husbands, most men had low heart rates. In precarious couples, however, men showed higher levels of physiological arousal. Therefore, in a precarious relationship, a stressed women can cause a stressed man, and the man's reticence causes an even more stressed woman. Not a good scene for a healthy relationship.
Those in precarious relationships are also perceived negatively by others, being seen as less likeable and less competent than those in other kinds of relationships. This perception is shared by both men and women in equal measure. Swann and his colleagues suggest that the gender role expectations of the participant may be causing such perceptions, with "man-more-inhibited" couples causing more dislike since they challenge traditional gender roles. People tend to feel more comfortable with the status quo.
These findings might explain why the precariousness couple effect occurs only when the woman is critical and blirtatious, but not when the man is. Sex role expectations may lead members of society to react adversely to interactions in which the woman is repeatedly placing demands on the man. As it turns out, men with traditional sex role attitudes express dissatisfaction with blirtatious, critical women, but men with very progressive sex role attitudes are more OK with it, presumably because they are more accepting of assertive behavior by women. Interestingly though, regardless of the sex role attitude expressed by the man, women in precarious relationships are not satisfied with inhibited men. It seems assertiveness always pays for men.
Such negative perceptions of precarious couples have serious consequences for those in precarious relationships. Research shows that having strong social networks is important when one is in a relationship, and the number of friends is related to commitment, satisfaction and investment in the relationship. Participants report being uninterested in striking up a friendship with members of a precarious relationship. This situation is bound to lead members of a precarious couple to feel as though they have no where to turn and vent.
In light of all the negatives of being in a precarious relationship, why in the world do they exist? The great paradox here is that men and women in precarious couples are drawn to each other. Blirtatious women are willing to make the first move, and are usually the initiator of relationships. This may start out well, but eventually the quiet male starts to resent the partner's blirtatiousness, and the blirtatious woman gets frustrated with the quiet man. Both males and females in a precarious relationship appear to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Precarious women desire a man who will indulge her desire to talk a lot, and precarious men desire a woman who takes charge. Unfortunately, those in just such a relationship run the risk of serious relationship dissatisfaction.
So what's the best practical advice in light of the evidence? It would seem that in order to gain the approval of others, women who end up in a precarious relationship should be advised to be seen and not heard -- surely a message we don't want to send women! To put things in perspective, it's important to remember here that blirtatiousness is not absolutely a good or bad thing to have. Blirtatious women tend to be quite satisfied with blirtatious men. It's all about match. If you find yourself in a precarious relationship, and the relationship isn't working, get out. If it is magically going smoothly, then screw public opinion. Stay together and prove to people that such a relationship can work.
The best advice, though, is to never get into such a relationship in the first place. As Swann and his colleagues advise:
"Before pairing, critical disinhibited women and non-progressive, inhibited men should consider the risks before beginning a romantic relationships with each other. That is, although such relationships may flourish if couple members strive to maintain healthy communication styles, the odds are that they will not."
If you'd like to gauge how blirtatious you are, take the test in the following slideshow. If you are female, score high and tend to be a critical person, you might want to start looking for your very own Larry David. The two of you can be blissfully and critically blirtatious together and leave the rest of us in peace!
© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman