The Upside To Attachment Anxiety

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This week, NYMag.com launched a new offshoot called Science of Us, which covers news and trends in the behavioral science world. One of their first pieces examines a recent study in Social Psychological and Personality Science that argues different types of negative attachment affect our morality.

Let's consider some terms first. Both attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance are diagnoses that refer to a person's behavior in intimate relationships as a result of their treatment in childhood. People with attachment anxiety are insecure in relationships, craving an intense level of intimacy that they worry will never be achieved as a result of inconsistent care and attention as an infant. Conversely, attachment avoidance results from a total lack of affection as a child and manifests itself with "commitment-phobic" behavior or even abstaining from intimate relationships altogether.

In the study, 7533 participants were sorted into three categories—attachment anxiety, attachment avoidance, and secure attachment—and were then asked a series of moralizing yes or no questions. For example, is it okay to throw a sick person off a lifeboat to save the lives of the others within it?

Anxious people tend to be highly empathetic and mentally inflexible—preferring clear delineations and predictability—and so researchers hypothesized that this would result in a staunch moral stance. Their findings backed this up:

Although high attachment avoidance predicted weaker moral concern for harm and unfairness, high attachment anxiety predicted greater moral concern for harm, unfairness, and impurity, and these associations were mediated by empathy and disgust sensitivity.

The correlation between avoidance and immorality was shaky—varying based on the exact aspect being measured. However, anxious people displayed a strong association with moral answers, to the point of "disgust" at immoral behavior. Being judgmental and moralizing in romantic relationships might not be a recipe for success, but at least according to this study, it correlates to high standards for the world at large.

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May 14, 2014 - 3:30pm
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