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Adult attachment theory:

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1 Adult attachment theory:
Does it relate to anxiety, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness? Phillip R. Shaver University of California, Davis SBM pre-conference Santa Clara University 3/22/06 Today I will be presenting Attachment, Compassion and Altruism. A talked based on research that Mario Mikulincer, Phil, Omri Gillath, and I have been working on over the past year. Thanks to NSF, the Fetzer Institute, the Marchionne Foundation; Mario Mikulincer, Bar-Ilan University, Israel; Omri Gillath, UC Davis

2 Overview Attachment theory: origins, aims, and essence
The theory applied to adult love, at first focused on romantic love or “pair bonding” The theory extended to a broader sense of “love” New findings regarding compassion and altruism New findings regarding gratitude and forgiveness Possible parallels with Buddhist psychology

3 Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachment theory
Created by John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, to explain why “maternal deprivation” so often leads to anxiety, anger, delinquency, and depression Bowlby published five major books between 1969 and 1988

4 Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachment theory
Bowlby’s theory was first tested on infants and their mothers by Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist, and her colleagues (whose major book appeared in 1978) She invented a laboratory procedure, the Strange Situation, to assess the quality of an infant’s “attachment” to its mother

5 Harlow’s monkeys and Ainsworth’s “strange situation”
Secure attachment facilitates exploration; insecure attachment interferes with it, especially under stressful conditions

6 The theory simplified Human beings, especially children, rely on attachment figures (“safe havens”) to protect them from danger and help them cope with threats and dangers The attachment behavioral system is an evolved, innate regulator of proximity (hence of safety, security, and emotion-regulation) When threats abate, other behavioral systems – e.g., exploration (curiosity) and caregiving (compassion) – can be fully activated (the “secure base” effect) Three major patterns of infant attachment have been studied: secure, anxious, avoidant

7 Child explores, is playful and un-inhibited; smiles, is sociable
The attachment behavioral system in infancy Child explores, is playful and un-inhibited; smiles, is sociable Child feels secure, confident Is mother near, attentive, responsive? Yes No Maintains proximity while protectively avoiding expression of intense need Defensive suppression of anxiety Anxiety Activates attachment behaviors ranging from simple looking to intense crying, searching, and clinging

8 Socially induced patterns of infant attachment (Ainsworth)
Secure: Confident that parent is available and responsive. Exploration-oriented, emotionally positive. Soothes easily. Shows early empathy and ability to talk about emotions. (Documented origin: sensitive, empathic parental caregiving; coherent parental discussion of emotions) Anxious: Cries a lot, is anxious, angry. Lacks confidence that parent is accessible and responsive. Inhibited exploration. Attachment behavior is too readily activated. (Documented origin: parental anxiety and uncertainty, parental self-centeredness, misperception of the child’s needs and signals, intrusiveness, inconsistency) Avoidant: Cries little during separation and actively avoids parent upon reunion. Engages in rigid, displaced exploratory activity, “turning to the neutral world of things without the true interest of exploration.” (Documented origin: parental rejection, lack of warmth, discomfort with negative emotions, vulnerability, and physical contact)

9 In 1987, using a simple questionnaire,
we identified attachment patterns in adults ____ I am uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I’m nervous when anyone gets too close, and relationship partners often want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being. (Avoidant, ~ 25%) ____ Relationship partners are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away. (Anxious, ~ 20%) ____ I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me. (Secure, ~ 55%)

Today we conceptualize attachment patterns as regions in a two-dimensional space HIGH AVOIDANCE DISMISSINGLY AVOIDANT FEARFULLY AVOIDANT LOW ANXIETY HIGH ANXIETY 8. For instance a person which positioned low on anxiety and high on avoidance is considered avoidant. ANXIOUS / PREOCCUPIED SECURE LOW AVOIDANCE

11 In my lab, we measure adult attachment patterns with two agree-disagree scales
Avoidance (sample items) 1. I prefer not to show how I feel deep down. 2. I try to avoid getting too close to my partner. I feel comfortable depending on my partner. (reverse-scored) I turn to my partner for many things, including comfort and reassurance. (reverse-scored) Anxiety (sample items) I rarely worry about being abandoned. 2. I need a lot of reassurance that my partner loves me. I get frustrated if my partner is not available when needed. I resent it when my partner is away from me.

12 Diverse sample of research findings: The adult avoidant pattern
less invested in close relationships (lower interest and commitment) describes parents as rejecting and/or emotionally cool (and maybe also abusive, alcoholic) has difficulty recalling emotional episodes from childhood (repression) expresses less grief following loss doesn’t use touch to communicate affection or intimacy withdraws from partner when partner is distressed (poor at caregiving) feels bored and distant during social interactions (in diary studies) doesn’t like to self-disclose and doesn’t approve of others who disclose projects own negative traits onto others and moves away from them claims not to be afraid of death but exhibits death anxiety on the TAT

13 Diverse sample of research findings: The adult anxious pattern
deeply invested in relationships yet contributes to frequent break-ups describes parents as intrusive and unfair; is still angry at them grieves intensely following loss and has trouble achieving resolution is frequently jealous and afraid romantic partner will leave one negative emotional memory initiates a flood of others worries about rejection or disapproval during daily interactions (in diary studies) self-discloses too much and indiscriminately, wants to get close quickly is both consciously and unconsciously afraid of death (“the ultimate separation”)

14 Diverse sample of research findings: The adult secure pattern
values and enjoys relationships and tends to have long ones describes parents in generally favorable (though not unrealistic) terms grieves losses but achieves resolution or reorganization enjoys sexual exploration, but usually in the context of a long-term relationship copes with stress by seeking actual or symbolic social support supports partner when partner is distressed (compassionate, responsive) self-discloses appropriately and likes others to self-disclose appropriately relatively unafraid of death (at both conscious and unconscious levels) Reacts to mortality salience with an increased desire for intimacy and a heightened sense of symbolic immortality (rather than becoming ethnocentric and hostile to outgroups, as insecure people tend to do)

15 Newer studies, Part 1: Attachment-system activation in adults

16 The attachment system can be experimentally activated in adults
Subliminal (very fast) priming with a threat word (e.g., failure, illness, death) leads to greater accessibility of attachment-related concepts – e.g., faster responses to attachment-related words (love, hug, secure, close) in a lexical decision task (Mikulincer et al., JPSP, 2000) Secure people activate positive but not negative attachment concepts; anxious people activate both positive and negative concepts; avoidant people activate both, but activate the negative ones only after a “cognitive load” has been added Avoidance seems to require effortful suppression

17 More on attachment-system activation (Mikulincer, Gillath, & Shaver, JPSP, 2002)
Subliminal priming with a threat word (e.g., failure, separation) increases accessibility of attachment figures’ names (including “God” or “Jesus” for some people), but not names of other familiar people Attachment anxiety correlates with faster access to attachment figures’ names regardless of threat Avoidant attachment correlates with slower access to attachment figures’ names (suppression, inhibition) when the threat word is “separation,” but not “failure” (so the suppression seems to be attachment-specific, not achievement-related)

18 Time taken to indicate that letter strings are words (names)
milliseconds * * = a significant difference

19 Newer studies, Part 2: Attachment, compassion, and caregiving
Kunce and I (1994) developed a questionnaire to measure caregiving orientations in romantic relationships and found that anxious individuals are more intrusive, less sensitive caregivers; avoidant individuals are less inclined to provide care Collins and Feeney have shown the same thing in several laboratory studies of couples This made us wonder whether compassion and generous caregiving could be enhanced by increasing a person’s sense of security (as Bowlby and Ainsworth showed exploration can be)

20 Part 2A: Enhanced security reduces inter-group hostility (Mikulincer & Shaver, JPSP, 2001)
Theory: Having a sense of attachment security allows people to open themselves to unfamiliar others and consider others’ worldviews This is supported by child-development research linking secure attachment with exploration, curiosity, and reduced fear of strangers Because of the plasticity of the attachment system (demonstrated in previous developmental and clinical studies), we thought security priming might cause even anxious and avoidant people to become more tolerant

21 In 5 experiments (conducted in Israel), we primed thoughts and feelings related to attachment security for example, by having people imagine being optimally supported and cared for for example, with words such as love, hug, secure, presented subliminally We then assessed feelings toward a variety of out-groups (as viewed by secular Jewish university students: Arabs, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Russian immigrants, homosexuals) Attachment style was measured beforehand. Relevant control conditions (positive affect, neutral affect, in-group targets) were included, and potential confounds (alternative explanations, such as positive mood) were measured and evaluated

22 Results In all 5 experiments, security primes, whether conscious or unconscious, eliminated the difference between in-group and out-group tolerance Similar effects did not occur for positive emotion primes (e.g., “success,” “happy”) unrelated to love or attachment Anxious attachment was consistently related to perceiving out-group members as threatening Security priming effects were not mediated (i.e., not explained) by positive mood Security priming did not interact with attachment style, suggesting that everyone’s sense of security can be enhanced, regardless of initial security or insecurity, with equally beneficial effects on tolerance

23 Part 2B: Attachment, compassion,
and altruism Theory: A secure person is able to focus on others’ suffering and activate behavioral systems such as caregiving rather than (self-protective) anxiety This idea is supported by child-development research linking secure attachment with empathic responses to people who are needy or suffering, even in the preschool years Attachment theory suggests that a secure person would be less distressed by threats of various kinds and more able to activate behavioral systems other than attachment e.g., caregiving (or helping others who are vulnerable or distressed) Sroufe has conducted extensive research revealing a link between secure attachment in infancy and empathic responding in early childhood Recent studies of adult attachment, using the ECR to measure the two major dimensions of insecure attachment – anxiety and avoidance – have also revealed a link between dispositional and situationally induced attachment security, and empathic, generous responding to others.

24 Initial support from survey studies (PR, 2005)
We conducted large-scale questionnaire studies in the U.S., Holland, and Israel People completed the usual ECR measures of attachment anxiety and avoidance, along with measures of number of volunteer services performed, time devoted to volunteer activities, and motives for engaging in such activities These questionnaires were administered to three samples across the world; the United States, Israel, and the Netherlands.

25 Survey results Avoidant people volunteered less, and when they did volunteer, they did it for less generous reasons, suggesting a lack of compassion or generosity Anxious people didn’t volunteer more or less than secure ones, but they got involved for more security-enhancing reasons (e.g., to feel included and be appreciated by others) Measures of alternative explanatory concepts (e.g., self-esteem, interpersonal problems) did not account for the findings

26 Experimentally increased security and compassionate behavior (JPSP, 2005)
We decided to study compassion experimentally In one experiment, security was increased by unconscious (subliminal) priming with names of supportive attachment figures In a second experiment, security was increased by conscious priming (asking people to think about specific examples of being comforted, taken care of) In both studies people were asked to help a suffering woman by taking her place in a stressful lab situation (in reality, she was an actress appearing via videotape, but participants didn’t know this) Can these phenomena be studied experimentally, in the laboratory? A preliminary study conducted in Israel and currently being run here.

27 Measures (based on Batson’s studies)
Compassion (7-point scale, 6 items) “Rate the extent to which you felt…” compassionate sympathetic Personal Distress (7-point scale, 8 items) “Rate the extent to which you felt…” alarmed distressed Stated Willingness to Help (7-point scale, single item) “To what extent did you wish you could help the other participant?” Actual Willingness to Help (yes or no) “Would you be willing to help the other participant by replacing her and completing the rest of her tasks?”

28 Rated Willingness to Help * Significant effect of security prime
First study: Differences between priming conditions in compassion, personal distress, and willingness to help * * No significant interaction effects Personal Distress Rated Willingness to Help Compassion * Significant effect of security prime

29 Actual Willingness to Help * Significant effect of security prime
First study: Proportion of people willing to replace the suffering woman as a function of priming condition * Actual Willingness to Help * Significant effect of security prime

30 Summary: Compassion experiments
The results were the same in both studies (using conscious and unconscious priming), and were highly similar in Israel and the U.S. Avoidant people were less compassionate and less willing to help Anxious people were more distressed, but this didn’t increase their compassion or altruism The beneficial effects of enhanced security appeared without regard for anxiety or avoidance; that is, the effects again were general Conclusion: Even dispositionally insecure people become more compassionate and altruistic when they feel more secure

31 Three Additional Pairs of Compassion Studies
One pair (US and Israeli) showed that the effects I’ve just described couldn’t be explained by opportunity to elevate one’s own mood (a manipulated variable) or by self-esteem and neuroticism (two self-report variables). A second pair of studies showed that the effects couldn’t be explained by “empathic joy,” self-esteem, or neuroticism. A third, that the effects couldn’t be explained by relatedness to the suffering person (or by self-esteem and neuroticism). In two of the three sets of studies, the egoistic alternative explanations applied only to avoidant participants.

32 2C: Attachment, gratitude, forgiveness
In several studies, we examined associations between attachment anxiety, avoidance, and dispositional gratitude and forgiveness We also examined associations between the two attachment dimensions and people’s subjective experiences of gratitude and forgiveness (thoughts, feelings, and wishes associated with feeling grateful to someone or forgiving someone who caused suffering) We checked to see whether these associations could be explained by other variables, such as self-esteem and general trust

33 Conclusions: Gratitude
Avoidant people were less grateful (dispositionally) and reported less positive experiences of gratitude (more threats to self, less happiness and love) Anxious people were neither more nor less grateful than secure ones, but reported a more ambivalent experience of gratitude (more happiness/love, but also more feelings of inferiority and obligation) This was not explained by self-esteem or trust; it really seemed to be due to attachment insecurity

34 Conclusions: Forgiveness
Avoidant people were less forgiving (dispositionally), more likely to seek revenge, and more negative in their experiences of forgiveness (deeper emotional wounds, more thoughts about relationship deterioration, fewer thoughts about relationship enhancement, less understanding of the other’s actions) Anxious people were neither more nor less forgiving than secure ones, but they experienced forgiveness as insufficient to cure deep psychological wounds to the self The findings were not explained by self-esteem or trust

35 Part 3: Security and self-transcendent values
We also explored whether security enhancement might strengthen two self-transcendent values: benevolence (being loving and kind toward people with whom one has frequent personal contact) and universalism (understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection of all people) It did . . .

36 Differences between priming conditions in benevolence and universalism
* * No significant interaction effects Benevolence Universalism * Significant effect of security prime

37 Clinical possibilities: PTSD symptom reduction
Can a security induction reduce the negative psychological effects of trauma (post-traumatic stress symptoms)?

38 We (Mikulincer, Shaver, & Horesh, in press) examined associations between attachment security and both explicit and implicit responses to trauma (terrorism in Israel) Explicit responses were assessed with a self-report measure of post-traumatic symptoms Implicit responses were indicated by cognitive accessibility of trauma-related concepts (words) in a Stroop task We examined the effects of both dispositional and experimentally manipulated (subliminally induced) security on the Stroop task

39 Method At the beginning of the semester, 120 Israeli students completed the ECR (in Hebrew) A month later, they completed a PTSD Inventory focused on effects of Palestinian bombings Based on the total PTSD symptom score, two groups of students were selected to participate in a third session One group – the PTSD group (N = 30) – scored above the 75th percentile on symptoms The other group – the non-PTSD group (N =30) – scored below the 25th percentile on symptoms

40 Method (continued) 2 to 3 weeks later, the students were invited to the lab, where they performed a Stroop color-naming task including 10 terror-related words, 10 negatively valenced words unrelated to terror, and 10 neutral words car bomb (say “green”) Hamas (say “red”) They completed each trial while being subliminally primed with an attachment-security word (“being loved”), a positively valenced word not related to attachment (“success”), or a neutral word (“hat”)

41 Results Anxious students exhibited more post-traumatic thought intrusions and hyper-arousal symptoms Avoidant students exhibited more defensive suppression of traumatic thoughts Students in the PTSD group had longer color-naming latencies for terror words (implying greater mental accessibility or activation of terror-related thoughts) But this effect was qualified by a significant interaction with experimentally primed security …

42 Color-naming latencies (in milliseconds) for terror-related words
Prime Type

43 Attachment Security and Buddhist Equanimity
There are striking similarities between the “secure mind” prized by attachment researchers and the “balanced, wholesome mind” advocated by Buddhist psychology. This seems odd, given the origins of the two psychologies (primate ethology and psychoanalysis, in one case; Indian philosophy and religion, in the other). I want to present some preliminary “loose” ideas about this similarity, for discussion.

44 I had an opportunity to discuss this with HH the Dalai Lama in October of 2004

45 Loose idea # 1: The Root of Suffering
“We fear losing our illusion of security – that’s what makes us so anxious.... The mind is always seeking zones of safety, and these zones are continually falling apart.... That’s the essence of samsara – the cycle of suffering that comes from continuing to seek happiness in all the wrong places” (Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty, 2003, pp ). Comment: This is similar to attachment researchers’ notion that some methods of coping with threats are healthier than others. But Chödrön writes as if everyone has an anxious, grasping mind. Attachment suggests this is a relative matter. People who have been treated well by attachment figures are measurably less afraid of death, more open cognitively and emotionally, less easily thrown off course. Also, context matters (because it creates different degrees of threat).

46 “Repressing” and “Grasping” versus Maintaining Balance and Equanimity
“It’s helpful to remind yourself that meditation is about opening and relaxing to whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It’s definitely not meant to repress anything, and it’s not intended to encourage grasping, either…. To the degree that we’re willing to see our enmeshment or grasping and our repressing clearly, they begin to wear themselves out…. That’s what we’re doing in meditation: Up come all these thoughts, but rather than squelch them or obsess about them, we acknowledge them and let them fade” (Chödrön, pp. 35, 47-48). Comment: This is similar to the idea in attachment theory that the major forms of insecurity are avoidance (repression, squelching) and anxiety (grasping, obsessing), with security being more open, more relaxed, less defensive. It’s interesting that the forms of insecurity emphasized by the two ‘theories’ are so similar.

47 Loose idea # 2: The attachment dimensions are like the two problems noted during meditation

48 Loose idea # 3: Taking refuge in the “triple gem”
A common Buddhist prayer is: “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.” HH the Dalai Lama: “Which object of refuge will never deceive us? There are three: the rare and supreme Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha…. The Buddha is the protector and is like a doctor; the precious dharma is like the medicine; and the spiritual sangha is like a nurse, taking care of us like a good friend” (The Heart of Compassion, 2002, pp ). There are very similar notions in attachment theory, including the central notion that available, sensitive attachment figures provide a “safe haven” (a refuge, a “nurse”) and a “secure base.”

49 Loose idea #4: Our experiments parallel the Buddhist cultivation of compassion
“To begin, we start where we are. We connect with the place where we currently feel loving-kindness, compassion, joy, or equanimity, however limited. We aspire that we and our loved ones enjoy the results of our practice. Then we gradually extend that aspiration to a widening circle of relationships: May I be free from suffering and the root of suffering. May you be free from suffering and the root of suffering. May all beings be free of suffering and the root of suffering” (Chödrön, pp ). Comment: This and related practices are similar to our attachment security inductions, which reduce outgroup prejudice and foster compassion, altruism, gratitude, and forgiveness. We began with reminders of others who served as security-providing attachment figures; then we checked to see whether compassion for others increased as a result. And it did!

50 Conclusions and Questions
Attachment theory is being creatively researched, and its implications for personal development and social harmony are empirically supported. Attachment theory and Buddhist psychology share important insights (which isn’t to say they are identical). It may be worthwhile to search the attachment literature for clues about differences between people who are secure, anxious, or avoidant and see if this maps onto the kinds of success or difficulty they have with meditation. This can be studied with a combination of self-report questionnaires, interviews, behavioral observations, and brain-imaging, as is being done with attachment. Attachment theory helps to explain why insecure people are less compassionate and kind than secure people: “Caregiving,” an innate behavioral system, is undermined by attachment insecurity. Can meditation “cure” insecure attachment or weaken some of the defensive strategies associated with it? How ‘social’ is meditation training, and does this matter? How does it work in the brain? We are undertaking the Shamatha Project to find out.

51 See handout for references or e-mail me:
THE END Thanks! Today I will be presenting Attachment, Compassion and Altruism. A talked based on research that Mario Mikulincer, Phil, Omri Gillath, and I have been working on over the past year. See handout for references or me:

52 Clinical considerations, 1: Are security effects only momentary?
In a recent preliminary study we assessed extended effects of repeated subliminal exposure to security words Participants: 30 UC Davis students, aged 18-23 Completed a standard measure of positive mood (the PANAS positive affect scale) 3 times: once at the beginning of the experiment, a second time 3 weeks later (at the end of a repeated-priming procedure), and a third time, 1 week after the experiment ended The priming occurred every other morning (M, W, F) over a 3-week period, with the subliminal stimuli appearing in the midst of cognitive tasks shown on a computer screen; during the 4th week, no priming occurred

53 Result: Mood change was sustained for a week without further priming

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