Why do people tend to elicit specific types of responses from others with whom they interact--often the same types of responses across many relationships? Robert Carson (1969) has dealt extensively with the security-enhancing properties of interpersonal relationships, and offers three related explanations. First, certain classes of behavior from the "other" tend to co-occur with things reinforcing to the individual, and thus become secondarily reinforcing. For example, feeding an infant tends to co-occur with caring and attending behaviors emitted by the parents. Second, each individual has a "plan" or strategy for interacting with the "other." This plan may vary somewhat from relationship to relationship. For example, a student may have a somewhat different strategy for impressing a professor and for wooing a romantic partner. If a strategy is unexpectedly unsuccessful, anxiety results. Such anxiety is avoided in future interactions by the use of strategies that are less vulnerable to disruption. The individual sets out to narrow the range of possible responses of the "other" so that a rebuff is unlikely. Third is the homeostatic or congruence hypothesis, according to which individuals have a need to keep their behavior in line with their self-perceptions and their perceptions of others. If the behavior of others disconfirms one's self-perception, this produces anxiety, which one will attempt to reduce.

Harry Stack Sullivan (1953) developed the concept of a "self-system," which is the individual's collection of self-perceptions. The self-system actively protects one from information that would cause one to reevaluate all pre-existing self-perceptions. It does this through a process of "selective inattention." Part of this process is taking evasive maneuvers that allow one to maintain congruence between one's interpersonal world and one's self-perceptions. Such evasive maneuvers include avoiding certain segments of the interpersonal circle that usually result in behaviors in others that disconfirm one's self-system, and consequently forcing others to give way to one's own interpersonal strategy, regardless of their own wishes.


Carson, R. C. (1969). Interaction concepts of personality. Chicago: Aldine.

Sullivan, H. S. (1953). The interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: Norton.

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