People who are insecure about their attachments to others tend to exhibit greater negative attribution bias, according to new research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Negative attribution bias refers to the tendency to attribute blame and hostile motives to others’ behaviors. This can manifest itself as attributing someone’s behavior to their personal characteristics rather than the situation they are in. For example, if a person doesn’t return our call, we might assume they’re rude or uncaring. However, the reality could be that they’re busy or preoccupied with something else.
“Humans are amazing, we interpret others’ behaviours and the causes of events in our own way,” explained study author Danyang Li of the University of Bristol. “Individual differences in attributions in social situations exist widely, with some people being more negative and even hostile, some people being more positive and benign. Interestingly, the people close to us (parents/romantic partners) can have a significant influence on the way we make attributions.”
The new finding are based on attachment theory, which posits that parent–child interactions shape how individuals perceive and behave in personal relationships. People can be secure or insecure in their attachments, and insecurely attached individuals can be anxious or avoidant. Individuals with attachment anxiety frequently worry about being rejected or abandoned. In contrast, those with attachment avoidance tend to be stubbornly independent and have difficulty trusting others.
Li and her colleagues conducted a meta-analysis, which is a statistical technique that combines the results of multiple scientific studies. The goal of a meta-analysis is to provide a more comprehensive picture of the data than would be possible by considering each study individually.
For their meta-analysis, the researchers searched for previous studies that included both measures of attachment and measures of attribution bias. They excluded studies that included criminal participants or patients who were being treated at the time of testing. Their final analysis included data from 8,727 participants. The dataset included 32 samples from North America, 7 samples from Europe and 2 samples from the Middle East.
The researchers found that higher levels of attachment anxiety were associated with greater negative attribution bias. Similarly, higher levels of attachment avoidance were also associated with greater negative attribution bias. This was true for both women and men, and among children, adolescents, and adults.
“Insecure attachment with parents/romantic partners is positively associated with more negative attributions. In other words, people with insecure relationships tend to negatively interpret others’ behaviours or the causes of events,” Li told PsyPost.
“For child samples, the link between insecure attachment and negative attribution bias played an important role in aggression in peers. For adult samples, the link between adult insecure attachment and negative attribution bias was associated with lower relationship satisfaction.”
The researchers also found that the link between insecure attachment and negative attribution bias was stronger among children and adults compared to adolescents. This could be due to the fact that adolescence represents at time when our primary attachments shift from our parents to our romantic partners.
The findings provide solid evidence that insecure attachment is associated with negative attributions. But the research cannot speak to the causal nature of this relationship. Researchers still have an important question to answer: Does heightened attachment insecurity lead to greater negative attribution bias or does greater negative attribution bias led to heightened attachment insecurity?
“Quite a limited number of studies have investigated the relationship between attachment and negative attribution bias using longitudinal designs,” Li explained. “Longitudinal studies are particularly important because attachment and negative attribution biases may change over time, and it is necessary for us to better understand the mechanisms through which these changes happen.”
The study, “Insecure Attachment Orientation in Adults and Children and Negative Attribution Bias: A Meta-Analysis“, was authored by Danyang Li, Katherine B. Carnelley, and Angela C. Rowe.