The advantage of having an anxiously attached person on your team

Psychologists talk about different attachment styles, such as secure, anxious and avoidant. The secure style is usually the one we're supposed to aspire to. They're the calm people who find it easy to get close to others, but not in a clingy way. By contrast, those with an anxious or avoidant attachment style are often seen in a pathological light - being either too needy or too aloof, respectively. They might sound like the kind of people you want to steer clear of, but now Tsachi Ein-Dor and Orgad Tal have published new research showing the upside to having an anxiously attached person on your team.

Eighty undergrads (28 women) completed attachment style and personality questionnaires. High scorers in anxious attachment agreed with statements like "My desire to be very close sometimes scares people away". Two weeks later they returned for what they thought was a study into artistic preferences. Each participant sat down at a computer and was left to rate a series of paintings that appeared on-screen. After the third piece of art, an error message popped up and the next thing, after the participant clicked OK, the computer started running a virus that wiped the whole hard-drive. The experimenter - a trained actress - came back in the room, feigned horror, and asked the participant to take the flash-drive out of the computer and head to the Dean's assistant manager for help.

Over the next few minutes, four obstacles were thrown in the way of the participants, potentially diverting them from the aim of seeking help. Outside in the corridor a person asked them to complete a short survey; the Dean's assistant manager, when they got there, directed them to the lab manager, but asked them to do some photocopying first; the lab manager's door had a sign on it asking visitors to wait; and finally, after being directed to the lab technicians' room, the participants passed a student who dropped a load of papers on the floor.

The higher that participants scored on anxious attachment, the more likely they were to seek help about the virus with single-minded focus. They more often than others refused to do the survey, shrugged off the photo-copying request, sought help rather than waiting outside the lab manager's office, and left the student to pick up their own papers from the floor. In contrast, the personality variables of extraversion and neuroticism were not related to this single-mindedness.

Ein-Dor and Tal have nicknamed anxiously attached people "sentinels". In past research they've shown that they, like people of a generally anxious disposition, are quicker to detect threats (e.g. smoke in the room). This new result confirms the researchers' further prediction that anxiously attached people are also particularly motivated to seek help from others, to raise the alarm - a tendency that "in many real world situations, might save others from a serious threat". Concluding, Ein-Dor and Tal said their study offered "a new perspective on the strengths of individuals who have long been viewed as deficient and poorly adapted."


Ein-Dor, T., and Tal, O. (2012). Scared saviors: Evidence that people high in attachment anxiety are more effective in alerting others to threat. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42 (6), 667-671 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1895

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
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