People high in anxious or avoidant attachment tend to be less concerned about causing harm in moral dilemmas regardless of the outcomes, according to new research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
A large body of research has demonstrated that people can be secure or insecure in their attachments to others, and insecure individuals can be either anxious or avoidant. But relatively little is known about how these attachment styles are related to complex moral decision making.
“Our social and moral psychological systems are shaped by early experiences. One very important social system is that of attachment, which develops adaptively to make the most of certain caregiving and guides social and emotional patterns later in life,” explained study author Heather M. Maranges, a research associate in psychology and co-director of research at the Program for Leadership and Character at Wake Forest University.
“Neglectful or punishing caregiving gives rise to avoidant attachment, which features the desire for independence, lower empathic concern, and social disconnectedness. Inconsistent caregiving gives rise to anxious attachment, which features fear of abandonment, need for social approval, and high empathic concern.”
“In making complex moral decisions, people bring to bear the very social and emotional responses that are part of the attachment system (e.g., empathy). Thus, we were interested in whether and how insecure attachment was related to moral dilemma decision making.”
Maranges and her colleagues conducted three studies with 518 participants in total to examine the relationships between attachment styles, empathic concern, and moral decision making.
The participants responded to a series of moral dilemmas in which a person could be harmed to bring about certain outcomes. In some dilemmas, the harm maximized overall outcomes (torturing a man to stop a bomb that will kill many others) but in other dilemmas the amount of harm was outsized compared with the outcome (torturing a man to stop a paint bomb that will make a mess).
The researchers found that anxious and avoidant attachment were both associated with reduced deontological decision making, which refers to the consistent rejecting of causing harm (e.g., torture) regardless of outcomes. Moreover, anxious and avoidant attachment were also associated with lower utilitarian decisions, which seek to maximize outcomes for others. In both cases, the negative associations appeared to be related to reduced levels of empathic concern.
“Compared to people who are more securely attached, people high in insecure attachment, whether anxious attachment or avoidant attachment, are less concerned about the wellbeing of individuals who could be harmed to save many others but also less concerned about the many others who could be saved in moral dilemmas,” Maranges told PsyPost.
“Both anxiously and avoidantly attached people reported empathizing less with people, which predicted less moral decision making in turn. Results are consistent with the idea that avoidantly attached people are emotionally distant and this affects moral cognition. Results are also consistent with the idea that anxiously attached people may prioritize empathizing with their close loved ones (as other research suggests) over empathizing with other people who may be in harm’s way or can be helped, compared to those who are more securely attached.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“It is important to test whether these effects occur when making decisions outside of the lab,” Maranges noted. In addition, “these results do not tell us about any one individual’s moral decision making based on their attachment style, rather these results reflect a pattern on average and can only speak to one of many contributors that come together to shape moral decision making.”
The study, “Insecure and insensitive: Avoidant and anxious attachment predict less concern for others in sacrificial moral dilemmas“, was authored by Heather M. Maranges, Susan K. Chen, and Paul Conway.