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Developmental, Personality and self

First study to investigate how attachment style changes through multiple decades of life

Attachment theory, which was first proposed in the 1950s by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, is one of the most influential in psychology.

09 May 2019

By Christian Jarrett

Attachment Theory argues for the importance of our earliest relationships with our caregivers, and predicts that these formative bonds will shape the nature of our connections with other people for the rest of our lives. Remarkably, however, psychologists still know relatively little about how people's attachment style – essentially their characteristic style of relating to other people – typically varies through life. "How do attachment orientations change across the life span? Unfortunately … this critical question has eluded researchers," write William Chopik and colleagues in their recently published paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Their research is the first to document how attachment style varies, on average, through decades of the lifespan, from age 13 to 72. The results suggest that, like other aspects of personality, attachment style is relatively stable through life, but that it is not entirely fixed, and in particular that it may be shaped by our relationship experiences, as well as the varied social demands of different life stages. "The current study is one of the first truly longitudinal investigations into life span changes in attachment orientation and the antecedents of these changes," write Chopik and his team.

The data come from five historic projects, involving personality surveys of 628 US citizens born between 1920 and 1967. The shortest of these was 9 years and the longest was 47 years. They all involved participants being assessed repeatedly over many years using the California Adult Q-sort – a measure that includes 100 personality items. Chopik and his team focused on 14 key items from this measure, allowing them to compile scores for "anxious attachment" and "avoidant attachment" for each participant. People who score highly on "anxious attachment" fear rejection and constantly seek reassurance. People who score highly on "avoidant attachment" find intimacy uncomfortable and find it difficult to provide emotional support to others. Low scores on both anxiety and avoidance is a sign of having a secure attachment style.

The researchers stitched the data from the five historic samples together, so that they had scores for anxious and avoidant attachment spanning 59 years. Past research has already looked at how people of different ages vary in their attachment scores, but one problem with that kind of cross-sectional research is that any differences between people of different ages could be due to generational differences, rather than due to developmental trends. The new research largely overcome that problem, with Chopik and his team able to identify clear age-related trends in the same individuals over time.

Specifically, the team found that people's anxious attachment tended to be high in adolescence, increasing into their young adulthood, before then declining through life into their middle and old age. Avoidant attachment showed less change with age, but started higher in adolescence and then declined in linear fashion through life.

The researchers surmised that attachment anxiety and avoidance may be high in adolescence due to the stressful transition from having primarily close bonds with parents to having meaningful relationships with peers and first romantic relationships. They also pointed out that mid-life – when anxiety and avoidance tend to decline – is arguably the time when we are most invested in various social roles and relationships and that "…increases in security often result from people becoming more comfortable in their relationships, gaining more evidence that the relationship will last, and having spouses who serve attachment needs and functions that promote close relations." Meanwhile, in later life, when attachment anxiety and avoidance are typically lowest, they said people tend to be very focused on the here and now – "declines in anxiety and avoidance may reflect the efforts of older adults to become closer to their close friends and family," they said.

Another finding from the study was that at all times of life, being in a close romantic relationship tended to go hand in hand with scoring lower on attachment anxiety and avoidance. "Romantic partners reward appropriate behaviour and admonish inappropriate behaviour … ," the researchers said. "By investing in these social roles, individuals adhere to the rules and appropriate behaviour of close relationships and may change how they approach relationships accordingly, perhaps becoming more secure."

It's worth noting that this research looked at group averages, which inevitably masks the idiosyncratic ways that some people may change in their attachment style through life. The study is also limited by only involving participants from the US, the fact that it relied on extracting attachment scores from a measure not designed for that purpose, and that data was stitched together from multiple samples so as to cover the period from adolescence to later life. In a way, however, that last point is also a positive: "given the many ways in which these samples differed, the amount of consistency across the samples in estimating changes over time in attachment is even more remarkable. The converging evidence is a testament to the robustness of these results, such that they were found under different conditions in samples collected between 1936 and 2016," the researchers explained.

There is plenty for future research to build on, including looking at how the consequences of different attachment styles might vary at different stages of life, and whether and how early life experiences might interact with the developmental trends identified in this study.  The researchers concluded that "By examining these future directions and identifying the conditions under which attachment orientations change, we can finally start taking seriously Bowlby's claim that attachment experiences are important from the cradle to the grave."

Further reading

Longitudinal changes in attachment orientation over a 59-year period

About the author

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest and the author of a forthcoming book on personality change