Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Attachment type and emotion

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Attachment type and emotion:
How does attachment type influence emotional experience?


This chapter investigates the impacts of attachment type on emotional experiences. Included in this chapter is a brief introduction to the varying aspects of emotion, including comparisons of different definitions of what emotions are; what causes them; and what are included as emotions. Attachment theory is introduced including a brief history of the development of Bowlby's Attachment Theory, as well as the further development by Mary Ainsworth, and her Strange Situations assessment method leading to the identification of the 'ABC' attachment types. This will conclude with a review of differences in emotional experience associated with attachment type.

Introduction to emotion[edit]

There are many different theories to the question "what is an emotion?" (Kagan, 2007). Eckman (1992) suggests that each emotion consists of unique aspects such as physiological reactions, as well as co-morbid features like rapid onset and short duration. Alternatively, Cabanac (2002) argues that an emotion is a mental experience with varying levels of intensity and hedonic content. Among the plethora of plausible definitions, Zemach (2001) suggests that many theorists will fall into one of two opposing groups: Spinozists, who believe emotion is an intentional state and a reason for an action, or Humeans, who believe emotion is a non-intentional state similar to a feeling.

Figure 1. Plutchik-Wheel. Displaying possible Emotion families.

To more correctly define an emotion, one must look at what causes them. Buck (1984) suggests a combination of biology and cognition in a two systems view. The biological system relates to an automatic and unconscious process that reacts to emotionally triggering stimuli. The cognitive system analyses an emotional stimulus, determining personal significance (as cited in Reeve, 2014, p344).

Ekman (1992) suggests that emotions exist in families, all of which consist of nine distinguishable characteristics revolving around expression, physiology, and antecedents. Eckman identified five emotions: enjoyment, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. These emotions are similar to that of Plutchik (1958), who identified a 'wheel of emotions' consisting of eight bipolar emotions: joy versus sorrow; anger versus fear; acceptance versus disgust; and surprise versus expectancy (as cited Plutchik, 2001).

Introduction to attachment theory[edit]

A key researcher into attachment types was John Bowlby with his work into an infant-mother attachment(Bretherton, 1992). Bowlby (1958) describes four theories regarding the nature of a child's ties to their mother. The first involved the child's physiological need to be fed and protected; second, a child develops an attachment to solely to the mother's breast and gradually develops an understanding of the mother; third, the need of a child to touch and cling to another person; and finally, a child desires to return to the womb. He also argued a difference between biologically inherent processes and learned processes.

Bowlby (1958) identified five attachment behaviours including sucking, clinging, following, crying, and smiling. Bowlby (1958) determined these to be species specific behaviours. At the time of development, very little research in the attachment of human infants existed; thus, Bowlby (1958) justified these observed behaviours of human infants with similarities observed of subhuman primates and other non-human animals. He additionally suggested that each of these behaviours reach a pinnacle of usefulness and then gradually decline as a child grows over the first two years of their lives, with behaviours such as crying and clinging reoccurring when the child feels it is in danger, sick, or incapacitated in some way (Bowlby, 1958).

Figure 2. Young children attach to their most familiar caregiver, which is usually their mother or father.

Mary Ainsworth worked alongside Bowlby, researching the attachment behaviour displayed by infants when interacting with the mothers (Ainsworth, 1964; Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). Ainsworth (1964) defined attachment behaviour as an established relationship with an infant and another person or object that is affectionately based, and invokes a chain of events that help build the affectionate relationship. It was in her later work that she defined three possible attachment types. Secure (type B), Anxious-ambivalent (type C), and Anxious-avoidant (type A) through her strange situation assessment method (Ainsworth, 1970)[grammar?].

The strange situation[edit]

The strange situation is a laboratory situation designed to assess how a young child (typically within the first two years of life) interacts with a new and unfamiliar environment, and to what extent the infant uses their mother as a crutch for their willingness to explore an unfamiliar environment (Ainsworth, 1970).

Attachment types[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Secure attachment[edit]

An infant that falls into a secure attachment type (type B) will generally be happy to explore and interact with a new environment when their primary carer is within vision, including in the presence of strangers, (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). Although they were observably distressed when their carer left the room, upon their return the infant typically returned to a calm state. Willingness to resume exploring the surroundings, however, was diminished comparatively to initial levels of exploration, as well as increased apprehension directed towards any strangers (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall (1978) suggest that a secure attachment would develop if the infant had learned to trust that their needs would be resolved quickly by their primary care giver upon the infant's observable presentation of distress.

Anxious-ambivalent attachment[edit]

The presentation of an anxious-ambivalent attachment in infants is typically demonstrated by an aversion to general exploration and uneasiness to the presence of strangers in the strange situation scenario (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). Additionally, upon the carer leaving the room, an infant is prone to aggressive outbursts, further avoidance towards exploring, and an observable anxiousness towards strangers. Following the return of the infant's carer, a combination of aggressive and contact seeking behaviour, or passive contact seeking behaviour towards the carer occurs (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978).

Anxious-avoidant attachment[edit]

Anxious-avoidant attachment is similar to anxious-ambivalent in terms of a hesitancy in exploring behaviour and avoidant behaviour of strangers when the carer is present (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). Ainsworth and Bell note tthat avoidance behaviours are extended towards the carer when they return to the room. Additionally, infants of the anxious-avoidant attachment type display avoidant behaviours towards the carer in greater frequency than of that displayed towards the stranger before the carer left the room (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). This avoidant behaviour directed towards the infant's carer is thought to be akin to a defence mechanism in which the infant does not trust that its needs will be met by their carer, and therefore, will attempt to avoid the carer (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970).

Disorganised and Disoriented attachment[edit]

A possible fourth attachment type was identified by Mary Main (1990) labelled as Disorganised and Disoriented attachment type. It was developed after the original ABC attachment types in response to difficulty placing infants in one of the three prescribed attachment types (Main, 1990). Crittenden & Ainsworth (1989) identified a pattern described as avoidant/ambivalent (A/C), a combination of behaviours found in both A and C attachment types. Infants that were placed into this 'D-type' were observed to act distressed including rocking and huddling on the ground. In addition, the infants showed signs of further distress upon the carers return in deciding to approach or avoid the carer (Crittenden & Ainsworth, 1989). Crittenden & Ainsworth (1989) suggest that this is due to an insecurity in the infant that their desire for closeness and proximity with their carer will not be met with affection and security, but rather by indifference or punishment. Main (1990) noted that infants often fell into D attachment type if there was a connection to maltreatment at the hands of their carer, or if the carer had suffered a death in their own early stages of life (Crittenden & Ainsworth, 1989)

Figure 3. Couple holding hands, a universal symbol of attachment.

Attachment in adults[edit]

Initially, attachment type was typically only applied to infants and toddlers to assess the development of social interaction and relationship building with their primary carer or objects (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). Research by Hazan and Shaver (1987) investigated if the attachment types were present in later adult life when applied to romantic relationships. Through their investigation Hazan and Shaver (1987) were able to identify similarities in the presentation of the original ABC attachment types found among infants in adults. There were predictable differences in experiences for adults in romantic attachments, and the research was able to identify linkages between models of self and social relationships similar to that of the relationship experience an infant has with their carer.

Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) developed a four-category model based off the similarities found by Hazan and Shaver (1987) to that of the original ABC attachment types identified by Ainsworth and Bell (1970).

  1. The first category labelled as secure included those who believed romantic relationships consisted of friendship, happiness and a mutual trust (Bratholomew[spelling?] and Horowitz, 1991).
  2. The second category, preoccupied, linked closely with that of Hazan and Shaver (1987) ambivalent group which highlighted a preoccupation with romantic attachment and reciprocation (Bratholomew and Horowitz, 1991). It was similar to that of the anxious-ambivalent attachment type by Ainsworth and Bell (1970).
  3. The third category, dismissive, was linked in part to that of the avoidant similarities identified by Hazan and Shaver (1987) with the anxious-avoidant attachment type. Signalling a sense of unworthiness within themselves and a fear of rejection by their romantic interest (Bratholomew and Horowitz, 1991).
  4. The final category, fearful, similar again to that of the avoidant attachment of Hazan and Shaver (1987) included a sense of unworthiness within a romantic partnership, however, was differentiated by a negative disposition towards other people and general social avoidance and fear of intimacy (Bratholomew and Horowitz, 1991).

Attachment type's influence on emotion[edit]

Through examining each of the attachment types, one may be able to predict some of the consequences associated with each and how those differences may impact a person's perception of emotion.

Toddler attachment and emotion[edit]

A difficulty with working with infants and toddlers is that often their own ability to differentiate between each emotion is quite lacking and therefore falls on observers to assess and determine what emotion they may be feeling at a given time. Over the decades since Bowlby and Ainsworth developed attachment theory, a plethora of research has been conducted, investigating such things[vague] as infant-parent attachment, discipline styles, and emotional development. An example of such research was conducted by Umemura, Jacobvitsz, Messina, and Hazen (2013) in which they aimed at determining if toddlers preferred the primary caregiver or the parent they felt more secure with. Their results showed, [grammar?] a toddler typically had a greater preference for the primary caregiver (typically the mothers in this case) regardless of attachment type. However, this effect only occurred if the toddler was distressed or fearful; if the toddler showed no signs of distress the observable preference was not found between carers. Although attachment history wasn't able to predict the toddlers preference of caregiver, Umemura, Jacobvitsz, Messina, and Hazen (2013) did find that if a toddler had developed a secure attachment type with a carer and that carer was present, the effectiveness of the toddler using that relationship to reduce their distress was shown to be greater than for other attachment types. This indicated that a toddler who fell into a secure attachment type was more adept at controlling their outbursts of emotion associated with distress and fear in comparison to the other attachment types.

Figure 4. Upset child.

Kochanska (2001) conducted a longitudinal study tracking the emotional development of fear, anger and joy, alongside attachment type histories of children through the strange situation assessment method over the course of the first three years of their lives. Over the course of the study Kochanska (2001) was first able to identify differences in emotional development at fourteen-months of age. Here they found that children of an anxious-ambivalent attachment displayed the highest levels of fearfulness as well as the lowest levels of joyfulness than any other attachment type. Changes in the emotional development progressed from that point with children with a secure attachment type displaying significantly less signs of anger; insecurely attached children showed an increase in negative emotions; avoidant children became more fearful; ambivalent children showed less signs of joyfulness; and disorganised children showed more signs of anger when compared with each other attachment type (Kochanska, 2001). These findings support the association with the secure attachment having a more positive emotional association than the other attachment groups. In addition, it shows that each other attachment type indicates an increase in differing emotional reactivity and perception.

Positive benefits of a secure attachment type were also found in early school age children by Granot and Mayseless (2001). They assessed how the children adjusted to a school environment in terms of academic achievement, emotional capacity, and social interaction. The findings indicated that children who were classified as having a secure attachment type demonstrated a more adaptive tendency, with greater academic achievement, emotional control and more positive social interactions than children of other attachment types (Granot & Mayseless, 2001). Additionally, they found that those children classified with either an avoidant or disorganised attachment type showed the poorest levels of adjustment in all levels assessed. These differences found may be a result of a child's ability to maintain a level of emotional control resulting in less emotional outbursts of anger, for example, allowing them to concentrate on school work or making social connections[factual?].

The research shows that the perception and ability to cope with emotion has been linked to different attachment types[factual?], although they have not focused on the possible environmental factors contributing to the attachment type developing in the young children. Carter, Garrity-Rokous, Chasan-Cohen, Little, and Briggs-Gowan (2001) investigated the association with maternal depression along with other comorbid disorders in the development of infant attachment security and social-emotional difficulties. They found that mothers displaying depressive symptoms had a small association with the development of insecurely attached children, however if maternal depression and other comorbid disorders were present, the development of insecure children was increased comparatively. This supports the previously mentioned tendency highlighted by Crittenden & Ainsworth (1989) where negative life events of the child's mother is associated with a greater negative emotional experiences and the development of insecure or disorganised attachment types[factual?].

Adolescent attachment and emotion[edit]

Figure 5. Adolescents displaying joy and closeness[explain how this relates to the chapter topic].

Attachment type and emotion research has not been restricted to that of toddlers and young children. Kobak, Ferenz-Gillies, and Gamble (1993) investigated the relationship between mothers and their adolescent children and the association attachment type and emotional regulation had on problem-solving[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Adolescents who were identified as having a secure attachment to their mothers also had significantly greater problem-solving behaviours as well as less dysfunctional anger issues and lower levels of avoidance than those identified in any other attachment type{[f}}. Identifying that by having a secure relationship with their mothers the adolescents may be more open to expressing ideas and suggestions in the problem-solving process and be more accepting of the decision made by their mothers[grammar?].

Booth-Laforce, Kim, Rubin, Rose-Krasnor, and Burgess (2007) found similar results when they assessed the attachment, self-worth and peer-group relationships of middle-aged children. In their study, they found that when a child was securely attached to the father, an association with lower levels of aggression was present and when a secure attachment was present with the mother the child displayed greater social competence in comparison to other attachment types. Additionally, they found that those with an insecure attachment had a greater probability of developing problematic relationships and externalising problems and emotions, compared with ambivalent attachment of which internalised them; and insecure-avoidant attachment types who had higher levels of aggressive behaviour.

Further demonstrating that children with who have secure attachment types are often associated with more positive emotions when compared with each of the other attachment types was the research by Simpson, Collins, Tran and Haydon (2007). In their longitudinal study spanning from infancy to the mid-twenties they investigated the interpersonal experiences in early childhood predicting the positive or negative emotional experiences in romantic partners later in life. Again they found that children with a secure attachment had the greatest outcomes; specifically, a secure attachment at twelve months of age indicated they would be more socially competent in school, have more successful relationships in their adolescent years and in turn have greater positive emotional experiences in adulthood. It was also found that both how one experiences and expresses their emotions in romantic relationships in adulthood were meaningfully linked[explain?] to the attachment experiences in early development regardless of which attachment type was observed (Simpson, Collins, Tran and Haydon, 2007).

Adult attachment and emotion[edit]

The research into adult attachment and emotion has trended[spelling?] to involve how a person experiences emotion in their romantic, intimate relationships more so than social relationships. Feeney (1995) conducted research looking at the ability to control anger, sadness and anxiety of couples in relation to their attachment types. Conversely[awkward expression?] to predictions based on the presented research, Feeney (1995) found that if both individuals in a relationship had insecure attachment types they had greater control over their emotions than did a pair of securely attached partners. Although other research has shown that anxious attachment types experience more negative emotions than positive, it would appear that through this they develop an enhanced ability to control them (Simpson, Collins, Tran and Haydon, 2007; Mikulincer and Shaver, 2005; Feeney, 1995)

Mikulincer and Shaver (2005) also studied the attachment and emotions in close relationships. However, in contrast to Feeney (1995) their results were more consistent with other research in that a secure attachment style boasted a more positive emotional range reporting more pride, happiness, and compassion; a greater tendency for the relationship to be maintained and have a greater overall quality[Rewrite to improve clarity]. They also found that those with an insecure attachment had a narrower range of experienced emotions, often being biased and defensive in nature. Avoidant attachment was similar to that of the insecure attachment, however, it was reported that those of an avoidant attachment tended to be defensive of their own behaviour and harbour negative feelings towards their partners. Those of an anxious attachment tended to overwhelmed by distressing, negative emotional episodes, specifically in response to situations in which one may typically expect a positive emotional experience. It would seem that those of a secure attachment type are able to experience positive emotions through themselves which is enhanced by the interaction of a partner whereas those of other attachment types tend to experience more negative emotions individually leading them to express more negative emotions into their relationship, and reducing the positive emotions available to be experienced[factual?].


Throughout this chapter, we have examined a number of theories, each of which attempted to define what is an emotion although some ambiguity is still present[vague]. This book chapter has provided a basis in which to further explore emotion and the attached theories surrounding it[vague]. Following the discussion on emotion, attachment theory, and its development over time by Bowlsby[spelling?] and Ainsworth into a functioning theory which has been repeatedly applied[vague]. The provided definitions for each of the attachment types (Secure, Anxious-Avoidant, Anxious-Ambivalent, and Disorganised/Disorienited) are only a small portion of attachment theory, and as such, it is highly recommended that a more holistic approach is taken with personal reading and investigation into attachment theory in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding[vague]. Finally, a discussion on the perception and experience of emotion of those observed as being part of each of the attachment types[vague]. The presented research demonstrated those of a secure attachment type were typically experienced more positive emotion and, as such, was often defined as the most socially acceptable attachment type over the course of development[factual?]. Each of the other attachments identified in the attachment theory and the similars[spelling?] applied to adults demonstrated some form of deficiency or negativity to the perception and experience of emotion. People with an anxious-avoidant attachment type often internalise their emotions and attempt to soldier through, often resulting in aversive experiences. In contrast to those of the anxious-ambivalent type of which tended to externalise the negativity of the emotions the perceived and experienced on towards others around them often appearing aggressive. Lastly, disorganised/disoriented, those of which were typically found to experience conflicting and confused emotions in relation to the events around them[factual?].

See also[edit]

Attachment and sexual motivation

Spiritual Attachment

Attachment and Non-human animals

Emotional Development of Children

Intimacy motivation


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Further resources[edit]