You can predict a person’s “moral compass” based on their insecurities about attachments to others, new research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science has found.
“To our knowledge, these are the first studies to demonstrate that attachment style contributes to variation in moral concerns and judgment and that this link can be explained by differences in moral emotions,” Spassena Koleva of the University of Southern California and her colleagues explained in the study.
Attachment theory was first proposed in 1969 as a way to explain the relationship between children and their parents, but researchers later discovered that attachment styles persisted into adulthood.
“Depending on the responsiveness, availability, and sensitivity of parental attachment figures, children develop internal working models of relationships that persist throughout adulthood and impact romantic relationships and other relational and personality processes,” Koleva and her colleagues explained.
Attachment avoidance refers to an emotional withdraw from intimate relationships in order to avoid frustration and disappointment. Attachment anxiety, on the other hand, refers to a fear of abandonment or fear of betrayal, which may result in a “clingy” or more demanding partner. The latter attachment style has been satirized by the Internet meme known as “Overly Attached Girlfriend.”
For their research, Koleva and her colleagues conducted a three-part study that included more than 14,000 participants.
They found that attachment avoidance predicted weaker moral concerns about harm and fairness, while attachment anxiety predicted stronger moral concerns about harm, fairness and purity. In addition, the researchers uncovered that attachment avoidance was associated with the belief it was morally acceptable to harm one to save many, while attachment anxiety was associated with disgust-related emotions.
The findings show that the two attachment styles have distinct moral profiles, which could help explain why both styles are associated with poorer relationships. Anxious individuals could be “less willing to give people ‘the benefit of the doubt’ in morally ambiguous situations,” while avoidant individuals “fail to appreciate the hurtfulness of their detached and cynical demeanor,” the researchers explained.
“In short, if ‘moral thinking is for social doing,’ then we cannot completely understand moral judgment without appreciating an individual’s unique relationship representations and goals,” Koleva and her colleagues concluded in their study. “We hope these findings will stimulate future work that integrates relational attachment, moral judgment, and emotion.”
The study was co-authored by Dylan Selterman of the University of Maryland, Ravi Iyer of the University of Southern California, Peter Ditto of University of California at Irvine, and Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California.