Our Attachment Style in Relationships is the Same Online and Off
A review of four studies has found a strong association between a person’s attachment style — thought to be rooted in the parent-child relationship — and their perception and management of social networks like Facebook.
“Attachment theory describes how people are creating bonds in their lives,” said Omri Gillath, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, who lead the review. “Attachment style is basically a relationship style. It’s the way we think, feel and behave in our close relationships. It’s known to affect relationship processes and emotion regulation. People can be secure or insecure — and if they are insecure, anxious or avoidant in their attachment style.”
Gillath said those with an insecure attachment style have issues relating to trust and closeness.
“If you’re high on attachment avoidance, you’re trying to avoid intimacy and tend not to trust others — downplaying the importance of emotions and relationships,” he said. “Conversely, if you’re high on attachment anxiety, you’re very concerned with rejection and abandonment and tend to be overwhelmed by emotions. Being low on both– securely attached — associates with long, stable, satisfying relationships.”
Participants in the studies first were benchmarked for attachment style, then evaluated for the “tie strength” and “multiplexity” of their friendship networks. Tie strength refers to the strength of the relationship, which could be measured in a variety of ways, Gillath explained, such as intimacy or frequency of contact. Multiplexity describes how many roles a social media network comprises.
“‘For example, you can be my co-worker, play basketball with me, or we can engage in political activism together. Further, network members can fulfill roles such as instrumental or emotional help, or informational function,” Gillath said. “The more roles fulfilled and functions served, the higher the multiplexity. The higher the tie strength and multiplexity, the more benefits one gains from her network.”
Gillath said the study suggests attachment insecurity associates with fewer benefits gained from one’s social network. “We found people high on attachment anxiety or avoidance had weaker tie strength,” he said. “Further, people high on avoidance reported lower multiplexity.”
The researchers also looked at how people manage their networks, including how they initiate, maintain and dissolve ties online. They found attachment style also predicted these tendencies, but not necessarily in the expected way. People who displayed high avoidant attachment were less likely to initiate and maintain relationships, and more likely to dissolve network ties, as researchers expected. But surprisingly, they also found that people who displayed high anxious attachment — who are “often concerned about ,” Gillath said — had a greater tendency to dissolve relationship ties then non-anxious people.
“Network members may feel smothered and dissolve the ties,” he posited.
In other words, anxious people reported that other network members are dissolving ties with them, whereas avoidants reported on dissolving ties with others. Either way, insecure people were higher on tie dissolution than secure people.
Now, a few things about these studies: First, they relied a lot on self-reporting, which is an accepted (and probably for this topic, unavoidable) method of scientific inquiry, but also prone to bias; and second, an association isn’t the same thing as a cause. Researchers sought to establish attachment style as a cause of social media network composition, strength and size by “priming” participants, that is, asking participants to think about a relationship that made them feel secure, an event that made them feel loved or supported, or by exposing them to words like ‘love’ or ‘hug;’ they found that “priming indeed influenced management in that it made people more likely to initiate and less likely to dissolve ties. This, in turn, leads to higher tie strength and multiplexity,” Gillath said. However, there’s still a long way to go before this is corroborated as fact.
Still, the findings are interesting because they make a kind of intuitive sense: Even online, with all of its virtual options, we can’t escape our true colors. It also gives us a window into how we can use social media to meet our individual needs.
“There are many things that can be bad about social networks, if you tend to search for hours on your exes and do Facebook lurking and are not involved in relational process — that can lead to jealousy and all kinds of negative emotions,” Gillath said. “However, if you’re using your social networks for fulfilling or serving your attachment needs — such as a secure base or safe haven — that’s likely to result in positive outcomes.”
The review was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.