Attachment anxiety makes people create false memories while talking to others

DALLAS — Your attachment style may be the reason you incorrectly remember details while arguing with a loved one. A new study finds those who deal with attachment anxiety are more likely to create false memories when they speak with someone face-to-face.

Interestingly, these individuals did not have the same problem when they only heard or read the details about a particular topic. The team from Southern Methodist University and Michigan State says there’s something about seeing a person’s face that makes people with attachment anxiety issues distort what the other person is saying — leading to an inaccurate depiction of the events they just heard about.

During their study, researchers Nathan Hudson and William Chopik had some of their participants watch a 20-minute video of a woman talking about a tumultuous breakup or another generic topic, like a shopping trip. Another group of participants received the same information through an audio recording or by reading a transcript.

Afterwards, all of the participants took a memory test, regardless of how they received the information. Results show that those rating higher for attachment anxiety had more false memories after viewing the video — no matter which topic the woman talked about. However, the results were similar when the team compared people with attachment issues who only heard or read about the woman and those who do not have attachment anxiety.

What is attachment anxiety?

Study authors describe this attachment style as people who frequently worry about rejection or seeing those closest to them abandon them. Those with high levels of attachment anxiety tended to strongly agree with statements like “I often worry that my romantic partner doesn’t really care for me.”

As for why these individuals are more likely to distort what people say in-person, the team says attachment-anxious people are “hypervigilant” when it comes to monitoring facial expressions. Unfortunately, this leads to them misjudging the emotional states of others.

“We believe that highly attachment-anxious individuals are likely intensively analyzing what is being said in the videos we showed them,” Hudson says in a university release. “Their own thoughts and feelings about the video may have gotten ‘mixed up’ with the actual video contents in their minds. Thus, they experienced false memories when we gave them a test regarding the video’s contents.”

Researchers also compared those with attachment anxiety to people with one of the “Big Five” personality traits, including neuroticism or extraversion. They also compared anxious adults to those displaying attachment avoidance — where they steer clear of relationships to avoid emotional closeness or getting hurt by others.

Results show that attachment-anxious adults were still more likely than others to distort memories after speaking to someone else in-person.

Hudson says college students who recognize that they have attachment issues will likely benefit from these findings immediately. For students, they could supplement the information they receive from others face-to-face (like in a classroom or a study session) by reading or using listening activities which improve memory and accuracy.

The findings are published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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