-Written by Katie Little ’18
As mentioned in an earlier blog post, attachment theory was originally used to describe the bonds between infants and their primary caregivers (For more information: http://davidsonmaplab.com/blog/mary-ainsworth-and-the-strange-situation-procedure/). However, the theory has since expanded to include the bonds between members of a couple (Hazan & Shaver, 1987).
Attachment theory proposes that there are three attachment styles that adults might have in romantic relationships. Adults with secure attachment are comfortable becoming close to others and depending on them; adults with avoidant attachment find it difficult to trust others and become close to them; adults with anxious-ambivalent attachment want to be very close to their partners and worry that their partners do not reciprocate their feelings and might leave.
Adults with the three different types of attachment have different experiences with relationships, with securely attached individuals reporting more positive experiences in their relationships. (For more information: http://davidsonmaplab.com/blog/what-does-attachment-theory-tell-us-about-romantic-love/).
However, while adult attachment has been established in the literature as an approach to studying romantic relationships, there is some question as to whether creating new categories such as “adult attachment style” is better than relying on more general personality measures.
The NEO Personality Inventory, for example, is a well-established measure of five personality traits, which are called the “Big Five.”
1. Openness to Experience: How open are you to new ideas or approaches?
2. Conscientiousness: How focused are you on organization or setting goals?
3. Extraversion: How much do you prefer to be around other people? How much do you prefer alone time?
4. Agreeableness: How much do you trust other people? How generous are you?
5. Neuroticism: How often do you have unhappy thoughts?
This measure can help predict occupational change, life satisfaction, and coping with trauma (Boyle, Matthews, & Saklofske, 2010, p. 188). If the Big Five could also predict relationship outcomes, then one measure could be used to assess all of these outcomes at once. Using one measure could help save time and resources.
In order to assess how the NEO Personality Inventory might compare to attachment styles and help predict relationship outcomes, Shaver and Brennan (1992) recruited a group of students from the State University of New York at Buffalo. The subjects completed the NEO Personality Inventory and two measures of adult attachment. Eight months later, they answered questions about the length of their current relationship and their levels of satisfaction in it. Satisfaction was measured using the Relationship Rating Form. Finally, participants answered the question “How likely is it that you will have a long-lasting relationship with this person (maybe even leading to marriage)?” in order to assess their levels of commitment to their relationships.
From participants’ answers, the researchers found that individuals with secure attachment were less neurotic and more extraverted than individuals with anxious-ambivalent attachment or avoidant attachment. The five characteristics measured by the NEO Personality Inventory could not discriminate between all three attachment styles, as individuals with anxious-ambivalent or avoidant attachment had similar personality profiles.
When predicting relationship outcomes, the researchers found that attachment style was a better predictor of whether or not an individual would be in a relationship, how satisfied he or she would be in that relationship, and what his or her degree of commitment to the relationship would be. The Big Five characteristics were able to predict the length of the relationships with similar accuracy to the attachment styles. Specifically, individuals with higher scores on the Openness to Experience scale generally had shorter relationships.
Overall, this study suggests that while attachment styles and the Big Five characteristics have similarities, attachment styles offer insight into an individual’s relationship outcomes that general personality measures cannot provide on their own. This finding is likely due to the fact that the NEO Personality Index measures more general tendencies (for example: “I am not a worrier”) and the attachment styles measure more specific tendencies (for example: “I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me”).
In order to study relationships, future research should continue use of the attachment styles in addition to traditional personality measures.
Boyle, G. J., Matthews, G., & Saklofske, D. H. (2010). The SAGE handbook of personality theory and assessment. Los Angeles: SAGE.
Hazan, C. & Shaver, P (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52 (3), 511-524.
Shaver, P. & Brennan, K. (1992). Attachment styles and the “big five” personality traits: Their connections with each other and with romantic relationship outcomes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18:5, 536-545.