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Measures and manipulations of attachment style

Author: Dr Simon Moss


According to attachment theory, some people often feel supported by parents, partners, or friends (e.g., Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007a). That is, whenever they are distressed, they tend to receive support and assistance from these people. Accordingly, over time, they develop the assumption that support will be available when needed, called a secure attachment style. They do not feel vigilant or worried, but instead become willing to explore the environment and develop their skills. Because of this secure attachment style, they tend to be resilient, trusting, honest, and creative.

In contrast, the parents, partners, or friends of some individuals are unpredictable, sometimes supportive but also sometimes punitive or unavailable. These individuals are not certain whether they will be supported. They become more vigilant, uncertain of whether or not they will be rejected or excluded by these people in their lives. Consequently, they experience anxiety and feel the need to fulfill the needs of parents, partners, or friends rather than explore the environment, called an anxious attachment. Alternatively, if individuals seldom receive support, they might perceive other people as unsupportive in general. They attempt to minimize their reliance on other people, called avoidant attachment. They want to perceive themselves as independent and robust, becoming defensive when criticized or challenged.

A plethora of studies have examined and extended attachment theory. To assess this theory, a variety of measures have been developed to assess the attachment style of individuals--that is, to gauge whether individuals are secure, anxious, or avoidant in their relationships. However, to ensure that attachment style affects the inclinations of people, rather than vice versa, various procedures have been developed to prime attachment security or insecurity as well (for precursors of these manipulations, see Baldwin, 1994).

Classes of measurement

Two main classes of measures have been developed to assess attachment style. First, some researchers apply narrative reports, such as the Adult Attachment Interview. During these interviews, participants discuss past experiences with attachment figures, primarily their parents. These interviews are intended to characterize the unconscious processes that individuals apply to regulate their emotions during these discussions (Jacobvitz, Curran, & Moller, 2002). Second, self-report measures assess the extent to which participants explicitly feel they seek close relationships and fear rejection.

The narrative approach can be applied to children as well (e.g., Borelli, Crowley, David, Sbarra, Anderson, & Mayers, 2010). Children received 19 questions about their experiences with caregivers. The answers are coded on eight scales, such as idealization, preoccupying anger, and balance of positive and negative references, on nine point scales. The children are then divided into four categories: secure, dismissing, preoccupied, and disorganized.

Self report measures of attachment

To illustrate a self report measure, the Adult Attachment Questionnaire, validated by Simpson, Rholes, and Phillips (1996), is sometimes administered to measure avoidant and anxious attachment styles--the two dimensions that underlie mot self report measures of adult attachment (see Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998). Typical items that assess avoidant attachment, which reflects a discomfort with intimacy, include "I am nervous whenever anyone becomes too close to me". Other items, including "I rarely worry about being abandoned by others", can be used to evaluate anxious attachment, which corresponds to a preoccupation with abandonment and rejection. These scales predict many relationship outcomes, such as anger, distress, and behavior during conflicts with partners (e.g., Simpson, Rholes, & Phillips, 1996).

Experiences in close relationships revised

The Experiences in Close Relationships Revised scales comprises 36 items and was developed by Fraley, Waller, and Brennan (2000). The items were extracted from many of the existing measures of adult romantic attachment, as outlined by Brennan, Clark, and Shaver (1998), and subjected to item response theory. The scale, although applicable to romantic relationships, can be adapted to relate to other forms of relationships as well. Participants are instructed to reflect upon general experiences in close relationships, without focusing on a specific partner

Like its predecessor, this scale comprises two subscales or factors. The first factor, which comprises 18 items, reflects the extent to which participants demonstrate attachment anxiety. A sample item is "I worry about being abandoned". The second factor comprises 18 items as well and corresponds to the degree to which participants experience attachment avoidance. A typical item is "I prefer not to show a partner how I feel deep down".

The level of internal consistency tends to exceed .90 (Fraley, Waller, & Brennan, 2000;; see also Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007). In the study conducted by Gillath, Hart, Noftle, and Stockdale (2009), alpha reliability was .94 and .93 for anxiety and avoidance respectively Nevertheless, as IRT analyses indicate, the reliability might be lower at the secure end of each dimension relative to the insecure end (Fraley, Waller, & Brennan, 2000;; for more information about relevant psychometrics, see Sibley & Liu, 2004). The correlation between the two subscales is moderate, approximating a correlation of .3 (Gillath, Hart, Noftle, & Stockdale, 2009).

Experience of relationships scale

This measure, developed and validated by Richards and Schat (2011), represents a variant of the experiences in close relationship scale. In particular, references to romantic relationships are replaced with allusions to other people. Hence, this scale can be applied to work relationships as well as other social connections. Anxious attachment is represented by items like "I worry a fair amount about losing my connections with others". Avoidant attachment is represented by items like "I don't feel comfortable opening up to other people".

Confirmatory factor analysis confirmed the two factors were correlated with each other: RMSEA = .084, comparative fit index = .93, Tucker-Lewis index = .92. Models with fewer or more factors did not fit as well. Furthermore, both anxious attachment and avoidant attachment were positively associated with trait affectivity and neuroticism. In addition, avoidant attachment, which undermines respect towards other people and thus impedes social connections, was inversely related to extraversion and agreeableness (Richards & Schat, 2011).

Anxious and avoidant attachment were also associated with emotional regulation. For example, anxious attachment was positively associated with both emotional and instrumental support seeking& avoidant attachment was positively related to surface acting, in which negative emotions are suppressed or concealed, and negatively related to support seeking.

State measures of attachment

Gillath, Hart, Noftle, and Stockdale (2009) developed a state measure of attachment. This measure comprises three subscales, each of which comprises seven items. The first subscale represents state security-which corresponds to feelings of trust and approval. A typical item is "I feel like others care about me". The second subscale represents state anxiety or the extent to which individuals experience an urge to be closer and accepted to a greater degree. An example of an item is "I want to share my feelings with someone". Finally, the third subscale relates to state avoidance, which is an aversion to intimacy and closeness. A typical item is "If someone tried to get close to me, I would try to keep my distance".

Confirmatory factor analysis confirmed this three-factor model: CFI =.90;; RMSEA = .07. A two factor model, differentiating anxiety and avoidance, or a four factor model, differentiating security, anxiety, dismissing, and fearful were not as suitable. Alpha coefficients for each subscale ranged from .83 to .87. Test-retest correlations over three months ranged from .51 to .59 across the three subscales (see Study 3, Gillath, Hart, Noftle, a& Stockdale, 2009).

Furthermore, convergent validity with the Relationship Questionnaire and with the Experiences of Close Relationships was established (see Study 4, Gillath, Hart, Noftle, a& Stockdale, 2009. Study 7 showed that priming different internal working models did indeed affect state attachment, as measured by this scale.

Attachment in business

Paulssen (2009) developed a measure of attachment style that is specific to business relationships. This measure comprised two dimensions. The first dimension represented the extent to which individuals feel secure in business relationships. A typical item is "It is easy for me to rely on my business partner". The second dimension represented the extent to which individuals feel close to their business partners. An example item is "I find it pleasant to have a personal relationship with my business partners". Both security and closeness predicted trust, satisfaction, and loyalty in business relationships.

Attachment between adolescents and parents

Armsden and Greenberg (1987) developed a measure of adolescent attachment with their parents. The questionnaire comprises 19 items and three subscales. The first subscale, trust, is exemplified by items like "My father respects my feelings". The second subscale, communication, entails items like "My father encourages me to talk about my problems". The final subscale, alienation, is illustrated by the item "My father does not understand what I'm going through these days". The questions are repeated for mothers and father separately. Elevated scores indicate strong, secure parental attachment. Emmanuelle (2009) reported levels of internal consistency of .93 and .94 for attachment to mothers and fathers respectively.

Other self report measures

The Relationship Questionnaire, developed by Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991), is often used to distinguish four styles: secure, fearful, preoccupied, and dismissing. Four paragraphs are presented, describing each style. Participants specify the extent to which they feel each paragraph describes their tendencies. In addition, participants can specify the attachment pattern that most exemplifies their inclinations.

Manipulations or primes of attachment security

Subliminal presentation of names

To manipulate attachment security, several studies have presented individuals with names of friends or acquaintances, either subliminally or incidentally (e.g., Mikulincer, Hirschberger, Nachmias, & Gillath, 2001). In particular, to prime a secure attachment, individuals are subliminally exposed to the name of someone who they feel is particularly supportive. In the control condition, individuals are subliminally exposed to the name of an acquaintance or someone who is not especially supportive.

Mikulincer, Shaver, and Rom (2011) utilized this technique. In their study, three measures were first administered to identify the names that should be presented. For example, participants indicated which names, from a list of 100, corresponded to people they knew. Participants also typed the names of family members, romantic partners, and close friends. In addition, they specified the names of people who offered security in times of need as well as supported their goals.

Next, participants completed a lexical decision task. That is, strings of letters were presented in sequence, and participants needed to indicate which of these strings represent legitimate words. For some participants, immediately before each string, the given name of the supportive person was presented for 20 ms, too rapidly to be recognized consciously. This condition was intended to prime a secure attachment. For other participants, the name was a close relative, partner, or friend who was not perceived as especially supportive--or merely the name of an acquaintance.

Finally, participants completed a test of creativity: the remote associates task. On each trial, they needed to identify one word that is related to three other terms. Relative to the other participants, the individuals exposed to the names of supportive people performed more effectively on the remote associates task. Presumably, when individuals feel secure, their vigilance dissipates, and they feel free to explore their environment, enhancing creativity and growth.

Memories of supportive people

One of the most common procedures that is utilized to prime a secure or insecure attachment is to ask participants to recall previous episodes in their life. They might be asked to consider an interaction with a supportive or unsupportive person, for example. Memories of supportive people tend to evoke the hallmarks of secure attachment, such as improvements in emotional regulation (e.g., McGowan, 2002).

For example, in the study conducted by Mikulincer, Shaver, and Rom (2011), participants were granted a series of instructions that guided their thoughts and images. To prime a secure attachment, participants identified some people they contact to garner support whenever they feel distressed or anxious. They listed six qualities of these people and then briefly wrote about a situation in which they were comforted by one of these individuals, detailing the feelings they experienced. In the control condition, participants identifies=d colleagues with whom they are not close. They listed six qualities of these people as well as and wrote about a typical interaction with one of these individuals.

When security was primed, participants were more creative. They performed more effectively on the remote associates task.

Pictures of supportive contexts

To prime a secure attachment, some researchers expose participants to pictures that depict supportive contexts. In one study, conducted by Mikulincer, Hirschberger, Nachmias, and Gillath (2001), on each trial, some participants were exposed to subliminal pictures--pictures presented too quickly to be recognized consciously--and then a Chinese ideograph. Their task was to rate the extent to which they liked this pattern. Other participants completed the same tasks, except the pictures were visible rather than subliminal.

On each trial, one of four pictures were presented. One picture represented a secure base: a Picasso sketch that depicted a mother holding and looking into the eyes of her baby, intended to evoke a secure attachment. Another picture represented treasure--and was thus positive but unrelated to relationships. A third picture was random dots. The final picture was blank.

Relative to the other conditions, when participants were exposed to the picture that primed a secure attachment, they evaluated the subsequent Chinese ideograph favorably. Presumably, the secure attachment evoked positive affect in participants, and this affect biased their evaluations of these patterns.

Subliminal or incidental words

Rather than exposure to subliminal names or photographs, some researchers expose individuals to subliminal or incidental words that relate to secure attachment, such as "love". In one study, conducted by Gillath, Sesko, Shaver, and Chan (2010), participants undertook a task in which they needed to judge the extent to which two pieces of furniture were similar. Embedded within this task were subliminal presentations of the word "love", to evoke a secure style, or "table", representing a control.

According to Gillath, Sesko, Shaver, and Chan (2010), a secure attachment should increase candor and openness. To assess this possibility, after they compared the pieces of furniture, participants were granted an opportunity to list their positive traits, negative traits, and previous occasions in which they behaved shamefully. Exposure to the word love, evoking a secure style, increased the likelihood that individuals would concede their negative traits or shameful acts of the past.


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Last Update: 7/18/2016