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Attachment

Your Attachment Style May Not Be What You Think It Is

New research sheds doubt on one of the most common tests of attachment style.

Key points

  • There are a wide diversity of measures of adult attachment style, or the individual's approach to close romantic relationships.
  • New research based evaluating a large collection of measures suggests that none meet rigorous empirical standards.
  • Knowing that a measure you take of your own attachment style might not produce accurate results should caution you from accepting its scores.
  • It's also important to remember that the links between adult attachment style and childhood experiences are not as strong as many believe.

Since the introduction of the concept of adult attachment style, research on it as a way to understand personality and its expression in relationships has expanded into virtually every area of psychology. The underlying assumption of this approach is that infants begin to form a sense of self or identity through their feelings of confidence in their caregivers. When the children grow up, this feeling of trust in those who cared for them is theorized to translate into the way they handle other close relationships, particularly romantic ones.

How might this theory play out in real life? Imagine a toddler whose parent suddenly leaves the room only to return unexpectedly a few minutes later. Does the child cry inconsolably when the parent is gone or are they able to play contentedly until the parent’s return? A “securely attached” child may readily settle down and just as quickly seem happy to be reunited when the parent comes back. A child with what’s called “insecure attachment” will handle this whole situation with distress, including a tendency to push away or ignore the parent upon their return.

Now think about how this basic paradigm, studied in the lab in what's called the “strange situation,” might apply to adult relationships. Someone with a secure attachment style (or typical way of reacting) should, in theory, retain their confidence that those who care about them will be there when they need them. They won’t mind if their partner goes away or even spends time with other people. Those who fit the insecure attachment style, by contrast, would be unable to allow their partner to come and go without a great deal of drama, much like the inconsolable toddler.

Because the idea of attachment style has seemed to many like it could be translatable from childhood to adult relationships— though it's important to note that while there is some association between a person’s attachment characteristics early in life and in adulthood, the correlations are far from perfect—researchers in the field have sought for the past several decades to understand how it fits into the overall makeup of someone’s personality. Because it would be impractical and unrealistic to put adults into laboratory settings that simulate the strange situation, investigators began to develop questionnaire measures of attachment style based on an individual’s self-report. As it turned out, no one measure fit the bill and, at present, several alternative measurement approaches exist.

Searching for a Measure of Adult Attachment Style

You are undoubtedly aware of the fact that when psychologists try to measure complex features of human behavior, they may not be able to settle on one all-purpose means of assessment. Just think about all the measures of intelligence, not to mention personality. The situation is no different in the field of attachment style.

According to the University of Manchester’s Miranda Justo-Núñez and colleagues (2022), “when it comes to self-report measures [of attachment style], are we measuring security at all?” Looking at the problem from a personality strength framework, which the authors claim is “a neglected competency in psychology” (p. 3), the British authors sought to address, through a comprehensive review, several notable limitations in previous publications.

Falling short of gold standards of reliability and validity, both of which serve to guarantee that a measure provides worthwhile scores, Justo-Núñez et al. note that some questionnaires even base their scales on how people respond to just a single item. Even more complex measures fall short. The secure attachment measures in these so-called “dimensional” approaches only place someone in this category through the process of exclusion; you are securely attached if you’re neither anxious nor avoidant of close relationships.

Do Any of Them Work?

Using the rigorous approach to evaluate the quality of published research known as Consensus-Based Standards for the Selection of Health Measurement Instruments, or “COSMIN,” the U. Manchester team began by gathering up a set of 40 studies from a possible 4,551 available in the literature. The COSMIN method requires that an investigation be “graded” on both risk of bias and maintenance of appropriate measurement criteria.

It’s particularly important, in this framework, that a study using a particular measure reports findings that are consistent with the study’s hypotheses. You may already be familiar with the “open science framework” in which investigators pre-register their hypotheses. A similar idea applies to the COSMIN standards, because this reduces the likelihood that investigators capitalize on chance or come up with their hypotheses after they see what they found.

Even before turning to the results of the Justo-Núñez et al.’s study, you might be interested in the fact that among the final 40 studies making it to the analysis, there were no less than 24 separate self-report measures. This fact alone signifies a lack of unity in the field. Indeed, the instrument names themselves are somewhat of an alphabet soup, with terms such as ARQ (Attachment Relationship Questionnaire), BAAC (Brief Attachment Adjective Checklist), and ACIQ (Attachment and Clinical Issues Questionnaire).

Whatever the instrument is called, however, the research team concluded that it’s probably not doing its job. Statements evaluating individual studies produced quality ratings such as “Very low (only one study of inadequate quality and N<100),” “Low (multiple studies of inadequate quality),” and “Low (one study of doubtful quality).” Hardly ringing endorsements.

Four measures did manage to make the COSMIN grade in terms of their ability to measure a similar aspect of attachment style, but they still failed to address such issues as producing consistent results from test to test or even what’s called “content validity,” meaning they didn't measure what they’re supposed to measure.

Apart from these four, which are not used as widely as other existing measures, the top two in terms of usage produced a “clear lack of psychometric support.” Not only should researchers be careful in interpreting findings based on these measures, the authors note, but “It is also recommended that the findings of previous clinical studies which have utilized these measures as the sole comparator instrument or classification tool are interpreted with considerable caution” (p. 8).

What Will the Future of Attachment Style Research Hold?

As the Justo-Núñez study’s findings make abundantly clear, the concept of attachment style has a remarkably long way to go before the ratings that people give of their own security and insecurity can be trusted. Given the vast number of studies (the 4,415 originally identified), this concept will certainly continue to live on in psychology. You may read a study suggesting, perhaps, that your own attachment style is a little too “dismissive,” or that you’re too “anxiously attached,” based on the way you answer a few self-ratings in one of the many online quizzes on the topic.

To sum up, it is, in a way, disheartening to hear that such a wildly popular and easily understood way to think about people’s personalities and patterns in romantic relationships isn’t as yet able to meet rigorous scientific criteria. However, on the positive side, it is helpful knowing that someone is checking the quality of the data, allowing you to gain more informed knowledge before jumping to conclusions about yourself or someone you care about.

References

Justo-Núñez, M., Morris, L., & Berry,K. (2022). Self-report measures of secure attachment inadulthood: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology &Psychotherapy,1–31. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cpp.2756

https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.275614JUSTO-NÚÑEZET AL.S

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