Thursday, May 16, 2019

First Study To Investigate How Attachment Style Changes Through Multiple Decades Of Life

Chopik, W. J., Edelstein, R. S., & Grimm, K. J. (2019). Longitudinal changes in attachment orientation over a 59-year period. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(4), 598-611.

Abstract: Research on individual differences in attachment—and their links to emotion, cognition, and behavior in close relationships—has proliferated over the last several decades. However, the majority of this research has focused on children and young adults. Little is known about mean-level changes in attachment orientation beyond early life, in part due to a dearth of longitudinal data on attachment across the life span. The current study used a Q-Sort-based measure of attachment to examine mean-level changes in attachment orientation from age 13 to 72 using data from the Block and Block Longitudinal Study, the Intergenerational Studies, and the Radcliffe College Class of 1964 Sample (total N = 628). Multilevel modeling was employed to estimate growth curve trajectories across the combined samples. We found that attachment anxiety declined on average with age, particularly during middle age and older adulthood. Attachment avoidance decreased in a linear fashion across the life span. Being in a relationship predicted lower levels of anxiety and avoidance across adulthood. Men were higher in attachment avoidance at each point in the life span. Taken together, these findings provide much-needed insight into how attachment orientations change over long stretches of time. We conclude with a discussion about the challenges of studying attachment dynamics across the life course and across specific transitions.

Popular version: First Study To Investigate How Attachment Style Changes Through Multiple Decades Of Life. Christian Jarrett. Research Digest, May 9 2019.


The data come from five historic projects, involving personality surveys of 628 US citizens born between 1920 and 1967. The shortest of these was 9 years and the longest was 47 years. They all involved participants being assessed repeatedly over many years using the California Adult Q-sort – a measure that includes 100 personality items. Chopik and his team focused on 14 key items from this measure, allowing them to compile scores for “anxious attachment” and “avoidant attachment” for each participant. People who score highly on “anxious attachment” fear rejection and constantly seek reassurance. People who score highly on “avoidant attachment” find intimacy uncomfortable and find it difficult to provide emotional support to others. Low scores on both anxiety and avoidance is a sign of having a secure attachment style.
The researchers stitched the data from the five historic samples together, so that they had scores for anxious and avoidant attachment spanning 59 years. Past research has already looked at how people of different ages vary in their attachment scores, but one problem with that kind of cross-sectional research is that any differences between people of different ages could be due to generational differences, rather than due to developmental trends. The new research largely overcome that problem, with Chopik and his team able to identify clear age-related trends in the same individuals over time.
Specifically, the team found that people’s anxious attachment tended to be high in adolescence, increasing into their young adulthood, before then declining through life into their middle and old age. Avoidant attachment showed less change with age, but started higher in adolescence and then declined in linear fashion through life.
The researchers surmised that attachment anxiety and avoidance may be high in adolescence due to the stressful transition from having primarily close bonds with parents to having meaningful relationships with peers and first romantic relationships. They also pointed out that mid-life – when anxiety and avoidance tend to decline – is arguably the time when we are most invested in various social roles and relationships and that “…increases in security often result from people becoming more comfortable in their relationships, gaining more evidence that the relationship will last, and having spouses who serve attachment needs and functions that promote close relations.” Meanwhile, in later life, when attachment anxiety and avoidance are typically lowest, they said people tend to be very focused on the here and now – “declines in anxiety and avoidance may reflect the efforts of older adults to become closer to their close friends and family,” they said.
Another finding from the study was that at all times of life, being in a close romantic relationship tended to go hand in hand with scoring lower on attachment anxiety and avoidance. “Romantic partners reward appropriate behaviour and admonish inappropriate behaviour … ,” the researchers said. “By investing in these social roles, individuals adhere to the rules and appropriate behaviour of close relationships and may change how they approach relationships accordingly, perhaps becoming more secure.”
It’s worth noting that this research looked at group averages, which inevitably masks the idiosyncratic ways that some people may change in their attachment style through life. The study is also limited by only involving participants from the US, the fact that it relied on extracting attachment scores from a measure not designed for that purpose, and that data was stitched together from multiple samples so as to cover the period from adolescence to later life. In a way, however, that last point is also a positive: “given the many ways in which these samples differed, the amount of consistency across the samples in estimating changes over time in attachment is even more remarkable. The converging evidence is a testament to the robustness of these results, such that they were found under different conditions in samples collected between 1936 and 2016,” the researchers explained.


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