A Scientific(ish) Rationale for Keeping Photos of Friends and Family in Your Case

Nobody enjoys spam or junk mail, but there’s something particularly aggravating about the dreaded telemarketer call. Maybe it’s because deleting emails and tossing out junk mail doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, while hanging up on a live human feels a bit more personal.

So I was intrigued to learn about apps that instead of hanging up on telemarketers, actually aim to waste their time by keeping them on the phone as long as possible (here’s a recording of an app called “Lenny” which manages to keep a Vonage rep on the phone for almost 22 minutes). I know…this is probably an awful thing to do to the poor telemarketer on the other end just trying to do their job, but still, awfully tempting…

All of this reminded me of a client I had when I was fresh out of school, and worked for an organization that provided counseling services for a company that did telemarketing.

As you can imagine, being a telemarketer can make for some pretty long and stressful work days. But this client described a clever strategy that he used, to help him get into a better mindset before each call.

He posted a big picture of his significant other on the wall behind his phone, right at eye level. The idea being, seeing her face before a call would tend to make him smile and feel less stressed, which would make him sound friendlier and more personable on the phone.

Cute story, but is there anything to this? Like, should we be stuffing our cases with pictures of the people in our lives who make us feel warm and fuzzy inside? And looking at our gallery of supportive faces before we walk on stage?

Stress!

102 undergraduate students, all currently in a committed relationship, were recruited to take part in a stress study (Bourassa, Ruiz, & Sbarra, 2019).

The students were randomly assigned to one of three groups – a control group that was instructed to think about their day, a mental activation group that was asked to imagine the presence of their partner, and a partner present group where partners were allowed to be physically present with the participant.

Measuring stress

To measure stress, participants were hooked up to various instruments that would keep track of changes to their blood pressure, heart rate, respiration rate, and so on.

And to establish a baseline, everyone began by watching a series of nature scenes and sitting quietly for 10 minutes.

Then, a research assistant came in and told them about the stressful task ahead – 4 minutes of submerging their foot in a bucket of cold water (~38-40°F or ~3.33-4.44°C).

Three sets of instructions

Before sticking their foot in the water, the control group was asked to “…think about your day and what has happened or will happen today.”

The mental activation group was asked to come up with a vivid image of their partner, and then to “…focus on that image that you created of your partner and draw on it as if he/she was right here supporting you through the task. If you get distracted, just remember to turn your attention back to that image of your partner.”

The partner present group, did not need much in the way of instructions. Their partners, on the other hand, were instructed to sit quietly next to them without talking or interacting with them in any way. To essentially just be a “silent observer.”

So did a partner’s presence make the task any less stressful? And did imagining one’s partner do anything at all?

A reduced stress response?

Actually, yes – to both.

The stressful task caused a spike in blood pressure for everyone – but the control group’s blood pressure increased by significantly more than either of the other two groups (see chart below).

Bourassa, K. J., Ruiz, J. M., & Sbarra, D. A. (2019). The impact of physical proximity and attachment working models on cardiovascular reactivity: Comparing mental activation and romantic partner presence. Psychophysiology, e13324.

Interestingly, there wasn’t much of a difference in the increase of blood pressure between the two partner groups. Simply imagining one’s partner seemed to be as effective as having one’s partner physically present.

This was actually a little surprising to me, since I would have thought that having your partner there in person would be more comforting than just imagining your partner. But I suppose this is just as well, since imagining your partner in stressful situations is a little more convenient than having to drag them around everywhere you go…

A competition

Admittedly, an ice bath for your foot, and a stressful performance, are two totally different kinds of stress. And blood pressure alone doesn’t paint a complete picture of the stress response.

But this did remind me of a competition I did in college. My wife (then-girlfriend) was participating in the piano division of the same competition, and agreed to accompany me so that I wouldn’t have to play with a pianist provided by the competition.

I was still plenty nervous during the competition, of course. But it was a unique experience to turn around and see my girlfriend and best friend sitting there at the keyboard, and to be able to share a quick smile, as if to psychically communicate to each other that no matter what happened in the next 15-20 minutes, we’d still have us.

It wasn’t a perfect performance, by any means, but I did feel comfortable enough on that day to really go for things and play freely.

Egad…

After everyone finished playing, one of the judges – a really famous teacher who was the kind of person you want to make a good impression on – walked over in my direction to share some feedback. The gist of his comments were that I should take a closer look at the score when I get home, because the performance I gave, was not of the piece that the composer wrote. Apparently, I had taken way too many liberties, that weren’t called for in the music…

I was mortified, of course. But when I shared this story with my teacher, she actually seemed rather pleased.

She explained that this may have been the first time I had ever gone overboard and played too “musically.” And that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if this was the start of me getting out of my shell a little bit.

Takeaways

That’s just one data point, but maybe there is something to having a supportive friend1 or partner in the audience or backstage. Or imagining them being there for you on stage, even when they can’t be there in person.

So going back to the question of whether we should keep photos of supportive friends and family in our case…well, you certainly don’t have to stuff your case with photos, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to put a few fun photos in there to remind you that there are people in the world who care about you regardless of how many notes you crack or play out of tune (it can be easy to forget, sometimes!).

What’s with the cow picture?

In case you were wondering what the deal is with that photo with the giant cow, that’s my wife and me standing in front of an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant that we went to after the competition. I was never one to put photos in my case, but I did put this one in my case. And that’s where it has remained, even to this day.


Reference

Bourassa, K. J., Ruiz, J. M., & Sbarra, D. A. (2019). The impact of physical proximity and attachment working models on cardiovascular reactivity: Comparing mental activation and romantic partner presence. Psychophysiology, e13324.

Footnotes

  1. Other studies have compared the effect of imagining close friends vs. acquaintances, and found that the stress buffering effect is greater for close friends.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

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Comments

3 Responses

  1. This is quite interesting. As another data point, my wife of 35 years and I play together all the time, whether in our church band or when she plays piano when I sing. There are two levels of comfort here. One is that we are a team that knows each other well, can cover for each other, etc. The other is what you say in this article, the innate trust and comfort of making music with someone very close to you. It is really great fun to create music with someone you have deep feelings for, a great help for being emotionally engaged in the music.

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