Everyone has an attachment style, a part of your personality that determines how you behave in interpersonal relationships. Insecure attachment styles include attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. An avoidant attachment style is characterized by reluctance to trust and rely on others and fear of intimacy. An anxiety attachment style involves reoccupation with the other, a need for reassurance and fear of abandonment. When attachment styles interfere with daily function, the condition is considered an attachment disorder. Adults with attachment anxiety are more often depressed and perceive and react to other people's behavior more quickly, but less accurately, than more self-reliant adults.
Individuals with attachment anxiety are more likely to become depressed than more self-reliant people, reports a research team in the July 2005 issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology. The researchers looked at the attachment styles of 425 students between 18 and 36 years old at a large Midwestern state university. They found that participants with high levels of attachment anxiety had excessive needs for reassurance. Not getting the needed level of reassurance led to symptoms of depression. The best way for people with attachment anxiety to avoid depression is to begin to rely more on positive self-reinforcement rather than feedback from others, the scientists report.
Perception of Relationship Events
Personality may affect how you remember relationship events, says University of Minnesota psychological scientist Jeffry Simpson. Simpson and colleagues observed couples discussing relationship events and questioned them about their feelings and memories of the event immediately after the event, then one week later. They found that when the discussions were distressing, individuals with attachment anxiety remembered being more supportive and closer to their partner than they actually were, whereas individuals with avoidant anxiety remembered the opposite. The researchers say the results reflect the different desires characteristic of each personality type.
How you interpret facial expressions depends on your attachment style and social context, reports a Swiss research team in a 2008 issue of "PLoS ONE." The scientists looked at brain scans of individuals playing a virtual game against an opponent who would either smile or frown after the game. They found that people with attachment anxiety displayed significantly stronger brain activation in response to the faces than people with attachment avoidance. A smile after success activated the brain's reward system, whereas an angry face after a loss activated the fear center. When the opponent smiled after a loss or frowned after success, there was no reward or fear response. Instead, brain areas involved in interpreting intentions lit up.
Inaccuracy in Face Recognition
Higher levels of attachment anxiety lead to quicker, but more inaccurate responses to emotional signals from others, says Illinois psychology professor Chris Fraley. Fraley and colleagues looked at people with different attachment styles who were viewing video clips of faces changing gradually from emotional to neutral, or vice versa. The participants were asked to indicate when they perceived a change. Anxious people noticed changes more quickly, but were less accurate than self-reliant individuals. However, they were more accurate than self-reliant individuals when forced to take the same amount of time. (ref 4)
People with insecure attachment styles make bad relationship choices and are slower to learn from their mistakes than individuals with secure attachment styles, says Fraley, who created an online relationship game that allowed participants to make choices at critical points and learn from their mistakes. Individuals with attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance "are more likely to interpret their partners’ actions in a negative way and then choose to respond in kind," says Amanda Vicary, co-author of the study. The researchers speculate that insecure individuals simply are unable to comprehend the adverse effects of their choices on their relationships.
- Journal of Counseling Psychology; "Adult Attachment, Depressive Symptoms and Validation From Self Vs. Others"; M. Wei et al.; vol. 52, 2005
- Science Daily: Relationship Recall--Attachment Style May Affect Memories of Relationship Events
- Science Daily: Context And Personality Key In Understanding Responses To Emotional Facial Expressions
- Science Daily: Anxious Adults Judge Facial Cues Faster, But Less Accurately
- Science Daily: Simulated Relationships Offer Insight Into Real Ones