Attachment Orientation Effects Free Memory Recall

According to research published in Psychoanalytic Psychology in 2010, attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety are associated with differences in how past information is recalled.

The study was conducted by Greg D. Haggerty of the Nassau University Medical Center, Caleb J. Siefert of the Harvard Medical School, and Joel Weinberger of Adelphi University.

Attachment theory was first proposed in 1969 as a way to explain the relationship between children and their parents, but later developed into adult attachment theory; a theory of attachment styles in romantic relationships. Attachment avoidance refers to an attachment orientation in which individuals emotionally withdraw from their relationship in order to avoid frustration and disappointment. Attachment anxiety, on the other hand, refers to an attachment orientation where individuals fear abandonment and may become “clingy” or more demanding.

“Attachment theory is highly focused on how the individuals come to regulate emotional states and process affective information, suggesting that it may be useful in understanding individual differences in how autobiographical memories are recalled,” as Haggerty and his colleagues explain.

For their study, Haggerty and his colleagues recruited 79 undergraduate and masters students from a large university. These students were administered a memory recall task, in which they were required to write down memories from their past, and an adult attachment orientation questionnaire.

In addition, the students rated the memories they wrote down as either positive or negative and also rated the memory’s emotional intensity. After rating their memories, the students reported whether a caregiver, such as a parent, was present in the memory.

Both attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety were related to the recall of negative memories.

The “results extend previous research showing that those high in attachment anxiety tend to report more negative memories even when they are not prompted specifically to recall negative memories,” according to Haggerty and his colleagues.

Surprisingly, those with a high level of attachment anxiety were not more likely to recall memories involving a caregiver. Haggerty and his colleagues “expected that because individuals high on attachment anxiety are hypervigilant to separation/abandonment and focused on attachment concerns they would more readily remember memories involving caregivers,” but “this was not the case.”

Those with a high level of attachment avoidance, on the other hand, tended to recall more negative memories involving caregivers, but tended to rate these memories as having a low emotional intensity. This is probably because “as a function of high attachment avoidance, they are focused on keeping the attachment system deactivated.”


Haggerty, G.D., Siefert, C.J. & Weinberger, J. (2010). Examining the relationship between current attachment status and freely recalled autobiographical memories of childhood. Psychoanalytic Psychology, Vol 27, No 1: 27-41.