I’m All Ears: The Need to Belong Motivates Listening to Emotional Disclosure

Open Access
Hackenbracht, Joy Ann
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 05, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Karen Gasper, Dissertation Advisor
  • Stephanie A Shields, Committee Member
  • Reginald Adams Jr., Committee Member
  • Mary Beth Oliver, Committee Member
  • emotional disclosure
  • listen
  • need to belong
  • social exclusion
People regularly disclose their emotions with friends. But why do people listen to their friends’ emotional disclosures? To investigate this question this project focuses on five possible explanations, which I refer to as the (1) interest, (2) belonging, (3) mood, (4) self-esteem, and (5) validation hypotheses. According to the interest hypothesis, a fascination with emotional material motivates people to listen to emotional disclosure. In contrast, the belonging hypothesis is that the need to belong motivates people to listen to their friends disclose emotional, but not descriptive, information. Although, because of an association between belonging, mood, and self-esteem, two alternative explanations are that the desire to improve one’s mood or self-esteem motivates people to listen (i.e., the mood and self-esteem hypotheses). Lastly, a fifth possibility is that interest, belonging, mood, and/or self-esteem motivate people not to listen per se, but to validate their friends’ emotional, but not descriptive, disclosures (i.e., the validation hypothesis). In support of the belonging hypothesis, Studies 1, 2, and 4 reveal that increased belonging needs are associated with an increased desire to listen to friends disclose emotional, but not descriptive, information. Study 3 suggests that this effect is specific to listening to friends, for belonging needs were not associated with the desire to listen to a stranger disclose either type of information. Study 4 demonstrated that people intended to listen to emotional disclosure because they expected it to increase their own feelings of social connectedness. For when people expected listening to generate distance between themselves and their friend, increasing belonging no longer increased the desire to listen to emotional disclosure. Negating the interest hypothesis, these effects existed above and beyond participants’ interest in the emotional material. Negating the mood, self-esteem, and validation hypotheses, these effectscould not be explained by participants’ concurrent mood, self-esteem, or the desire to validate another person’s experiences for none of them were supported by the data. Together these studies provide new insights into the self-disclosure process, by illustrating a potential process that encourages people to listen to their friends. This research makes a unique contribution to our understanding of self-disclosure because of its focus on the listener. That is, it extends prior work by focusing not on how speakers benefit from disclosing emotional information, but on how listeners may benefit from listening to emotional disclosure. The data indicate that people who listen to emotional disclosure with “all ears” may do so because they expect that listening to this particular type of information will help them fulfill their own need to belong.