Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Crash Course in Attachment Style & Developmental Psychology

Recently I told my mom about a psychology article that appeared in the local newspaper. It described new research by Chris Fraley who found that people who are anxiously attached to romantic partners misread facial expressions of emotion because they judge too quickly what the person might be feeling. But, when they are forced to take their time before deciding what a person might be feeling, they are MORE accurate than other people.

I found it all really interesting and was able to report it and some background information in what she called "mom language, not Holly lingo."

So, here's the crash course in attachment style & developmental psychology in my best "mom" language:


Ok, so - every child is born with a "temperament" which later becomes that child's personality. Temperament is inborn and genetically based. A baby also has a 'primary caregiver' (mom or dad, or aunt, or nanny, etc) who takes care of the baby's needs in a particular way called a 'caregiving style.' The baby's temperament and the parent's caregiving style interact with each other to create the baby's "attachment style."

The attachment style is the child's expectations for how others will take care of its needs. Are my needs being met? Does my caregiver take care of me in the way I need it, when I need it? Or are they sometimes not available, or make me wait, or take care of the wrong problem (like feeding me when I really needed my diaper changed or playing with me when I really just wanted to be rocked... that sort of thing). The attachment style that a child develops early in life gets carried into his/her adult romantic relationships and affects how s/he interacts with romantic partners.

There are some disagreements among psychologists about how many different attachment styles there are, but I agree with the people who think there are two qualities that underlie it all: ANXIETY and AVOIDANCE.

People can be a little to a lot anxious about significant others. People with "anxious attachment styles" worry their partner will abandon them. They desperately want emotional closeness and try to get it from their partners, sometimes through physical affection. This may make them feel like they can prevent their partner from leaving them.

People can also be a lot or a little avoidant of close emotional relationships. People who have "avoidant attachment styles" don't really want to be emotionally close to others. They would prefer to have a series of shallow relationships rather than getting deeply involved with someone romantically.

Anxious and avoidant people (i.e. people with INSECURE attachment styles) may be that way because they were born a little more "reactive" or sensitive to stimuli (like loud noises, absence of caregiver, etc) compared to other babies. It's like their brain chemistry makes them constantly on edge and revved up, sensitive and ready to react to anything. On top of that, they may have had a caregiver who was inconsistent in responding to their needs as a child. Anxious people hold out hope that the caregiver will get it right someday and will take care of them appropriately. On the other hand - avoidant people maybe turned out that way because they gave up hope that someone would take care of them the right way, so they avoid relationships to keep from getting hurt.

People with a SECURE attachment style were probably babies born with an easy-going temperament (they didn't overly react to weird stimuli, didn't cry too much & when they did they calmed down easily). Sometimes, babies who are born with difficult temperaments can become like easy-going babies through sensitive and proper caregiving. It's all about how the caregiving they get in childhood interacts with their inborn temperament. That influences how they will handle romantic relationships as an adult.

It's a REALLY neat area of psychological theory and research and it is MY AREA.

The cool thing is that this has been studied for 50 years in primates!

In fact, there's this really famous psychologist, Harry Harlow, who did the first research on attachment style in the 50s with MONKEYS. He named his study "Mother Love." He paved the way for others to study it in people. I love this whole area of research. It ties in love, babies, primates, nonverbal behavior like touch and affection, and even evolutionary theory. There's a really good book about Harry Harlow that tells the whole story of attachment research - it is fun & written by a non-scientist in mom-language. You might like it!

Here's the link to the attachment research newstory.


To figure out what a baby's temperament is, there are some simple observations you can make, just like any good psychologist:
* How does the baby react to a sudden noise?
* How does s/he react to the appearance of a new toy, something scary, strangers, the absence of her "primary caregiver"?

If the baby is quiet and doesn't really flinch or cry too much then the baby has an "easy" temperament. If the baby flinches, cries a lot and can't be easily calmed, that baby has a "difficult" temperament. Some babies are "slow to warm up" if they initially act like difficult babies but then later calm down and appear to be easy babies. Difficult babies, through sensitive and appropriate caregiving, can become "easy" babies but you'll have your work cut out for you! Every child, no matter the innate temperament, can become a secure child and a secure adult through responsive caregiving.

For more background on attachment theory, read Chris Fraley's essay.


Speaking of his new research on facial expression, I see two great applications of this research provided the effect is replicable.

First, the skills of anxiously attached people could be harnessed to help in situations where people need to be "sized up," but not when that has to be done quickly. Anxiously attached people might make terrible security screeners in airports and at borders, but what about inside the criminal justice system where contact is more sustained? Second, anxiously attached people could create conflict within their relationships because they misread their partners. They might not be able to resolve that conflict easily either, so it stands to reason that anxiously attached people could be coached to slow down and take time before communicating with their partner.

Finally, everyone could benefit by learning more about nonverbal communication!

Stay tuned for more on that.

No comments: