What is attachment?
If you have ever taken even an introductory psychology course, it’s likely you’ve come across Harry Harlow’s primate studies. They showed that, above and beyond providing food, it was a guardian’s soft fur that won over a primate’s loyalty. Translating this to people, psychologists find it isn’t basic needs that matter to a baby, but the feeling of security that their caregiver provides. The point of attachment is not to get an infant closer to someone that will provide them with food; its purpose is, in fact, to get the baby closer to someone who will provide comfort and protection.
While the nature of attachment is first shaped in infancy, studies show that it also persists through adulthood. It colors nearly every aspect of an individual’s temperament, personality, and other aspects of their behavior at every age. As a baby becomes an adolescent and an adolescent becomes an adult, attachment styles manifest in peer relationships and romantic relationships. Still, the idea was not fully laid out until the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, most notably by Elizabeth Ainsworth and John Bowlby, who understood that developing attachment was not a learned behavior.
Attachment style, or the way someone relates to others, however, is. For those who are unfamiliar, attachment can be visualized as a 2×2 grid with four sections (Figure 1). On the upper left is secure attachment, characterized by an ease of forming and maintaining relationships. The remaining quadrants are considered “insecure” attachment styles.
On the lower left is avoidant attachment, which is seen in individuals who distance themselves from others. On the upper right, diagonal from avoidant attachment and conceptually opposite, is anxious attachment. People who seek closeness to others out of fear that their loved ones will abandon them is an extreme example of those with anxious attachment styles.
Finally, in the lower right, is an unofficial combination of both anxious and avoidant. People in this category tend to fluctuate between both keeping others from being too close to them and worrying deeply about the relationships with people they care about.
As helpful as charts like this can be for identifying problematic behaviors in need of improvement, it is important to remember that they are a generalization. In reality, attachment styles exist on a spectrum. Even within a single relationship, someone might express different types of behaviors in different styles.
Figure 1. Visualized attachment styles by Waters based on Brennan, Clark, and Shaver’s Two Attachment Dimension Scale as posted online by Earnshaw.
Attachment and threat-detection
Secure attachment sounds like the healthiest category to be in, and plenty of research supports this. What this research doesn’t address, however, is the fact that half of the entire population falls into one of the “insecure” quadrants (Ein-Dor et al., 2010).
Evolution is all about fitness. Not “physical” fitness, but how likely you are to survive to pass on your genes to the next generation. That insecure attachments remain is a suggestion that they offer some sort of boost to fitness the same way that secure attachments do.
A line of research by Ein-Dor & Shaver (2011) aims to understand why these supposedly unhealthy attachment styles still exist in humans and why they are so universal. They propose Social Defense Theory (SDT), visualized below (Figure 2). Essentially, it claims that every attachment style has a benefit and a disadvantage. Securely attached individuals are good at remaining emotionally stable in the face of threats, but may not recognize a threat and fail to react. Anxiously attached individuals, on the other hand, become highly distressed in the face of threats, but they are much better at detecting them. Avoidant individuals are good at recognizing threats and reacting, however, they fail to communicate their solution to others, valuing self-preservation above helping other people.
Figure 2. Visualized benefits and disadvantages of different attachment styles by Waters based on Ein-Dor & Shaver’s Social Defense Theory.
Ein-Dor and Shaver’s initial 2011 paper tested people who scored high for anxious or for avoidant attachment by assessing how they responded to situations about risk. These included memory tests, free recall, and written responses. They found that their hypothesis of SDT was supported in five of the six experiments. People with anxious attachment styles were more likely to remember threat-related information and when viewing ambiguous scenes, they more often produced stories that included perceived threats. People with avoidant attachment styles, however, were more likely to describe reacting to a threat.
The only contradiction appeared during the real-life scenario the researchers in this paper tested. When participants were placed in a room with a (fake) faulty computer, anxious participants acted as expected when the room began to fill with smoke: they noticed it first. Avoidant participants, who were expected to act first, however, rarely reacted. The researchers believe the situation did not allow for more “courageous” action on the part of avoidantly attached individuals. Removing oneself from the unsafe situation was simply a matter of walking out of the room – which is a response anyone, regardless of attachment style, can figure out easily.
What it all means
In a follow-up review on the experiments, Ein-Dor et al. suggest several ways that insecure attachment styles are beneficial for a group’s survival. For one, groups that have a mix of individuals with different attachment styles may fare better than groups with only one type of attachment style. “Sounding the alarm” (as anxiously attached individuals might) alerts the rest of the group to potential threats, while identifying an escape route (as avoidantly attached individuals might) helps others flee danger.
There has been little research on the topic of SDT following these papers. Perhaps this is because the researchers figured it out in just one go! It may also be that the area has been neglected out of preference for studying secure attachment. It’s widely understood that evolution does not always select for the “best” traits – simply the ones that aren’t limiting enough to prevent a living thing from passing on its genes. Another issue that will soon affect half the world’s population: nearsightedness.
A key difference between attachment style and myopia, though, is that one is treated quickly with a simple tool. Meanwhile, developing secure attachment style behaviors can take decades of therapy, self-reflection, and stable friendships. If you aren’t there yet, these studies are a reminder that insecure attachment has its benefits.
Ein‐Dor, T., Perry‐Paldi, A., Merrin, J., Efrati, Y., & Hirschberger, G. (2018). Effective Disengagement: Insecure People Are More Likely to Disengage From an Ongoing Task and Take Effective Action When Facing Danger. Journal of Personality, 86(2), 233–246. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12308
Gruneau Brulin, Shaver, P. R., Mikulincer, M., & Granqvist, P. (2022). Attachment in the time of COVID-19: Insecure attachment orientations are associated with defiance of authorities’ guidelines during the pandemic. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075221082602
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Ein-Dor, T., Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2011). Attachment insecurities and the processing of threat-related information: Studying the schemas involved in insecure people’s coping strategies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(1), 78–93. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022503
Ein-Dor, T., Mikulincer, M., Doron, G., & Shaver, P. R. (2010). The Attachment Paradox: How Can So Many of Us (the Insecure Ones) Have No Adaptive Advantages? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(2), 123–141. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691610362349
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The School of Life. (2018, September 20). What is your attachment style? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2s9ACDMcpjA