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Social and behavioural, Stress and anxiety

Anxiously attached people are ace at poker and lie detection

People who worry habitually about separation and abandonment – the “anxiously attached” – tend to be highly skilled at lie detection, an attribute that means they excel at poker.

15 April 2013

By Christian Jarrett

People who worry habitually about separation and abandonment – the "anxiously attached" – tend to be highly skilled at lie detection, an attribute that means they excel at poker. That's according to Tsachi Ein-Dor and Adi Perry whose new findings build on their theory that anxiously attached people are natural sentinels – highly sensitive to threats in the environment, including, this new research suggests, social threats.

Across a pair of initial studies, dozens of men and women answered questions about their attachment style before watching video clips of two women chatting or one person telling a story. In some of the conversational clips, one of the women told a lie, a fact that could be detected through a subtle objective clue in the clip. In the story clips, the events described either happened to the story-teller or were fabricated (there no were objective clues in these clips).

People who scored high in attachment anxiety (for example, they agreed with statements like "I worry about being abandoned" and "My desire to be very close sometimes scares people away") tended to be better at spotting lies and made-up stories. This wasn't just because they were simply more liberal at labelling utterances as lies. Also, the lie detection link with attachment anxiety was specific. General state and trait anxiety did not correlate with lie detection skills. "It appears that anxiety from separation and abandonment, which relates to hyper-activation of an innate psychobiological system (i.e. the attachment system) that promotes survival, is what is driving people's ability to detect deceit," the researchers said, "and not an overall sense of tension."

To see if the lie-detection skills associated with anxious attachment have any benefit in real life, Ein-Dor and Perry recruited 35 semi-professional poker players, assessed their attachment style and then observed their performance in a local poker tournament. Each participant was allocated at random to join in with a group of seven other players at the event. As they predicted, the researchers found that the participants who scored higher in anxious attachment tended to win more money in the tournament (on average, a one-point higher score in anxious attachment was associated with winning an extra 448 chips). Social anxiety did not have this association with tournament success.

Of course, there's no direct evidence here that the anxious players' better performance was due to their superior deception detection skills, but the researchers think it's highly likely, especially given how important the spotting of bluffs and reading of "tells" is to poker (also past research suggests anxiously attached people are poorer at concealing their own emotions so their advantage is more likely to be related to reading other players' minds than camouflaging their own).

These new findings add to past research showing that anxiously attached people are quicker than average at detecting physical threats, such as smoke in a room, and are quicker to alert other people to the danger.

"Studies like the ones reported here offer a new perspective on the strengths of individuals who have long been viewed as deficient and poorly adapted," the researchers concluded.

Further reading

Ein-Dor T, & Perry A (2013). Full House of Fears: Evidence that People High in Attachment Anxiety are More Accurate in Detecting Deceit. Journal of personality PMID: 23437786