The Almost Effect

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Who Connects Best Online, and Why

First-of-their-kind studies reveal why some of us network more easily.

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Psychologists have long been interested in the concept of attachment, which has its origins in our childhood experiences, primarily with those who raised us. Being raised in a family where nurturance is combined equally with structure creates what are called secure parent-child (or caregiver-child) attachments. The secure child, in turn, is likely to grow into an adult who is unafraid to venture into the world and who is also capable of forming and sustaining relationships.

But what happens if something goes awry?

Anxiety and Avoidance in Real-World Relationships

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There are two variations on so-called insecure attachment styles that can emerge from developmental years that are characterized by a great deal of rejection, ambivalence, or abuse. These are called anxious and avoidant styles, and they describe how we feel about relationships.

They are described well in an article published by R. Chris Fraley and colleagues at the University of Illinois (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000, Vol 78, No. 2 p. 350-365).

Where Do You Fall?

To get an idea of how well these attachment styles describe you (or someone you are close to) respond to the following questions, which are adapted from the test developed by Fraley:

 

Answer each item as it describes you as follows:

0 = Not at all / 1 = Describes me a little / 3 = Describes me a lot

___ I worry that my loved one might end our relationship.

___ I think I love my partner more than he/she loves me.

___ I tend to feel anxious whenever I and my partner are not together.

___ I often feel unlovable.

Add up your score (from 0 to 12) to see how much the anxious attachment style describes you or a loved one.

 

Now, respond to the following questions using the same 3-point scale:

___ I don’t care to share my deeper feelings with others.

___ I hesitate to rely on my partner to do things for me.

___ I am uncomfortable with too much affection from my partner.

___ I value my independence.

Again, add up your score to see how much the avoidant attachment style describes you or a loved one.

 

How Anxiety and Avoidance Can Poison Relationships

As you might imagine, individuals who score relatively high on either the anxious or avoidant attachment scales may experience stress and difficulty in their close relationships.

Anxious individuals worry about losing their relationship. They therefore put extra effort into it, can seek a lot of reassurance, and like to maintain a lot of contact. The more anxiously attached people in this group are often describe as clingy or smothering. The fact that they can come on strong initially in a relationship can be appealing, but their insecurity can eventually become a burden—especially if they don’t see it for what it is.

Avoidant men and women do form relationships, but depending on how avoidant they are, they also tend to maintain a certain distance. Their partners may describe them as aloof or self-sufficient, meaning that they are inclined to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves and not rely on a partner very much. For a person who has been in past relationships with partners who had an anxious attachment style, the avoidant style can seem refreshing, at first. Over time, however, the avoidant person’s reluctance to be truly intimate can drive a fatal wedge into a relationship.

Anxiety and Avoidance on Social Networks

We know how attachment styles operate within the realm of real-life relationships. What about online? After all, web-based communication is now an integral part of most people’s lives, and we establish and maintain many “friendships” through social-media sites like Facebook. What role do these attachment styles play in cyber-relationships? And is it possible that these attachment styles could interact in any way?

Researchers at two Israeli universities have begun to answer these questions with the first of what will hopefully be many studies, so that those who use social media to connect to others can better understand possible differences in the behavior of those in their online networks.

In a study reported this year in the journal Computers in Human Behavior (Vol. 38, pp. 127-135), 354 participants with a median age of 27 volunteered to share information about themselves and their use of social media—including their attachment styles. They all completed the Experiences in Close Relationships questionnaire, on which the above questions are modeled. They also provided information on how many people they had invited to be their “friends” through social media sites like Facebook, and how many of these friendships had been initiated by others. They also provided information about how much time (in hours) they spent the previous week interacting with others online, and if they had initiated any new friendships in that week. Last but not least, they indicated whether or not they communicated anything of an emotional nature via the web, such as how they felt about issues or how they themselves were feeling.

This research employed complex statistical techniques, but here are some of the more significant findings in a nutshell:

  • People who scored low on both avoidance and anxiety tended to have the broadest cyber networks—they initiated more friendships, accepted more friend invitations, and spent more time communicating with friends. These individuals seem most open to connecting with others online. They are also the most likely to become social media hubs themselves. Researchers labeled them secure.

  • Being low in avoidance was associated with an increased willingness to share information with others, including of an emotional nature. In effect, the avoidance attachment style appears to function in the social world much as it does in the real world, with avoidant individuals being the least disclosing and having smaller social networks.

  • People high on anxious attachment indicated a willingness to communicate with network friends but not when it involved emotional content. One possible explanation is that people with an anxious attachment style are inclined to fear abandonment or rejection, so they may hesitate to share information that could lead others to reject them. Instead, they play it safe in their networks, emotionally speaking.

Take a moment now to reflect on the above descriptions of how a person’s attachment style plays out online and in the real world. Do you see any consistency between the two, either for yourself or someone you consider close to you? Do you know anyone you would consider "secure"—comfortable in their own skin, not overly worried about rejection, and willing to be open about their thoughts and feelings. Would you say that these individuals are social "hubs," in real life or online?

Finally, are there any ways in which you would like to change the way you relate to others in your physical or virtual social networks?

 

@2014 by Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., author of Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder and Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or my Loved One's) Drinking a Problem?

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., is the supervising psychologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

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