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Are You Securely Attached to Your Mobile Phone?

Questions about your mobile phone might give insight into your personality.

Key points

  • Research shows associations between the ways in which people relate to objects and their attachment styles.
  • Possible attachment styles include secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganised.
  • Adapting real-world relationship scales to your digital devices may offer insight into your personality. 

A lot of words have been spent discussing the impact of the internet on relationships: Are digitally-promoted relationships a good or a bad thing? Do they help to find a partner in the 21st century? Is it dangerous to meet people online? What does wanting to meet people online tell us about relationship styles? Yet, somehow there are questions, just as fundamental, that rarely get asked. One is: What is your relationship style with the internet, and what can this relationship tell you about your general relationship styles, if anything?

As the digital world becomes more a part of everyday lives, these questions may be as fundamentally important as those about the impact of the internet on other relationships. Adapting existing real-world relationship scales may give you a few questions to ask yourself about your relationship to digital devices, and give you some insight into your personality.

Relationship styles in adulthood are closely intertwined with attachment styles learned in childhood. These styles are often taken to fall into one of four categories, generally referred to as secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganised. These four styles fall along two dimensions that deal with your relationships with others and with yourself. Ask yourself: Are you comfortable being with others, or not? And are you comfortable being by yourself, or not? If the answer to both is "yes," then you likely have a secure relationship style. If you are comfortable being with others, but not with yourself, then you likely have an anxious style. Being comfortable with yourself, but not with others, likely gives you an avoidant style. And if you don’t really know, and are all over the place with your feelings, then you may be disorganised in your relationship and attachment styles.

These styles have implications for our relationships to objects. These object relationships can follow the same patterns as our other relationships. Winnicott first introduced this idea through his term "translational object," which he used to describe a child’s favourite thing—the thing that they carry around with them all the time. Their (hopefully) comforting relationship with their primary caregiver transfers to that object as they gain independence, and this object relationship is normal and healthy—at least, for a time. Sometimes this translational object allows us to remind ourselves of that primary caregiver; we can use the object to think about them, and, as adults, most of us are familiar with such uses of objects.

In fact, research is clear that there are strong associations between the ways in which people relate to objects and their attachment styles. Those who have a secure attachment style, when asked about an object, tend to express low dependence, and low feelings of alienation, toward it. The anxiously attached show high dependence on the object, and low alienation from it. The avoidantly attached tend not to be dependent, and show high alienation from the object. The disorganised show high dependence and high alienation.

So how do you feel about your mobile phone? Can you recognise any features of these object-relationship styles in your own relationship to your phone, or with the digital world in general? Perhaps a few probing questions might help you focus on your relationship style with the digital world. Think about which set of questions most accurately tap into your feelings:

  1. Do you have a mobile device that you quite like, but you don’t always carry or use it? Maybe you enjoy using it, but you can get on perfectly well without it?
  2. Do you need to have your mobile in your hand, constantly checking it? Perhaps you worry it’s not working?
  3. Do you hate all digital devices with a vengeance, despising their intrusiveness and the fact that, more and more, you have to use them to function? Perhaps you refuse to possess one of the wretched devices?
  4. Maybe you can’t quite make up your mind about mobile phones? Perhaps you swing wildly from constantly carrying one, to leaving it languishing unused for months?

It doesn’t take a great deal of insight to see that these ways of dealing with mobile phones map onto ways of dealing with people—in order, secure (1), anxious (2), avoidant (3), and disorganised (4).

There are no specific questionnaires for assessing your relationship to digital objects. However, it is possible to generate some interesting questions about relationships to digital devices, based on categories from questionnaires assessing "object relations." One such questionnaire is the "Bell Object Relations and Reality Testing Inventory," which is widely employed to examine people’s ability to maintain relationships, and to reliably identify reality, and may help us explore our relationship to our mobile phone. Think about these questions, and your views of your mobile phone:

  1. Do you mistrust your digital device, and is your relationship to it superficial? (Alienation)
  2. Do you feel bad when your mobile device doesn’t do what you want it to do, and do you suffer anxiety and feelings of hurt when it goes wrong? (Insecurity)
  3. Do you only use your device for what you can get out of it, and guard it from other forms of use? (Eitocentricity)
  4. Are you uncertain about how to use the device, and feel awkward around it? (Incompetence)
  5. Do you think you are in complete control over your digital world, and can influence all aspects of it? (Reality distortion)
  6. Are you confused by the way you feel about your mobile phone, and doubt your abilities? (Perception uncertainty)
  7. Do you think the digital world is out to get you? (Hallucinations)

Each of these categories was developed to assess ways of relating to the real world, but they may give insight into our relationship to digital devices. If you tend to lean toward "alienation" (1) and "eitocentricity" (3) in your view of your digital device, then you may well show some digital avoidant attachment. If you lean toward "insecurity" (2) and eitocentricity (3), then you may show some digital anxious attachment. Think about yourself, your mobile phone, and your relationship style—does this sound about right to you? The other areas are more difficult, and may reflect either a disorganised digital attachment style, or just technical incompetence.

The way people treat objects can give some clues as to the way in which they will treat another person. It’s not an exact predictor, but it can give you an insight. This may go for relationships to mobile phones, as well—or it may not; we don’t yet know if there is any transfer from the digital to the real world, in this aspect. However, as the digital world and its devices become more and more intertwined with the real world, perhaps such behaviours can be used to give insights into the personalities of others and ourselves.

More from Phil Reed D.Phil.
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