-Written by Katie Little ‘18
In previous blog posts, we have discussed attachment between mothers and their infants, as well as between adults in close relationships (Please see the blog posts “What Does Attachment Theory Tell Us about Romantic Love?” and “Mary Ainsworth and the Strange Situation Procedure” for more information.) To review, attachment is best understood as a bond between an individual and a specific other person, and different people can develop different attitudes towards close relationships that can ultimately impact their desire for forming bonds and the outcome of their relationships with others. There are different ways to classify different attachment types; some psychologists have used a three category model, and others have used a four category model, but for the following study, we will focus on only two broader types of attachment: secure and insecure. Secure individuals generally are comfortable forming bonds with others, but they are also capable of functioning independently. Insecure individuals can either fear intimacy, worry that others will abandon them, or show no interest in becoming close to others.
Waters, Merrick, Treboux, Crowell, and Albersheim (2000) decided to conduct a study based on the assumption that attachment classification during infancy could predict attachment classification during adulthood. This hypothesis would mean that the bonds that infants had with their mothers, as demonstrated by the babies’ responses during the Strange Situation Procedure when the mother left and returned, could predict how people felt about later relationships, as suggested by their responses in the Adult Attachment Interview.
Waters and his colleagues recruited 60 white, middle-class infants and put them through the Strange Situation Procedure. Based on their responses to the different episodes, such as when a stranger tried to comfort them after their mothers left the room, a panel classified the infants as belonging to different attachment groups. 20 years later, 50 of the same original participants agreed to respond to questions from the Adult Attachment Interview. Again, a panel reviewed their answers and used them to place them into an attachment category, but the panel had no knowledge of how the participants had originally been classified.
Additionally, the experimenters asked participants about whether they had experienced specific negative life events: namely, loss of a parent, parental divorce, life threatening illness, parental psychiatric disorder, or physical or sexual abuse by a family member. They thought that these life events would cause participants to be more likely to change classifications between infancy and early adulthood, especially changing from secure to insecure attachment.
Waters and his colleagues found that 78% of the infants received the same classification from the secure-insecure dichotomy. Moreover, when they had the participants answer questions about whether they had any experience with negative life events, people who reported any of the five selected events changed classifications 44% of the time. People without exposure to these negative life events only changed classification 22% of the time. These results support the notion that attachment is generally a stable characteristic unless a negative life event causes a disruption.
It’s important to note that while we might expect that negative life events would always cause a person to switch from secure to insecure, this is not actually the case. For example, the experimenters identified one participant who switched from insecure to secure attachment after being diagnosed with a life long illness in childhood. The participant’s parents responded to the diagnosis by providing such consistent sensitive care that the child actually become more comfortable with developing close relationships. This surprising finding suggests that attachment stability is a complex process, and we still have a lot more to learn.
Waters, E., Merrick, S., Treboux, D., Crowell, J., & Albersheim, L. (2000, May/June). Attachment security in infancy and early adulthood: A twenty-year long longitudinal study. Child Development, 71(3), 684-689.
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