New research provides evidence that individuals with avoidant attachment styles exhibit distinct patterns of emotional processing. Just like in the sci-fi movie “Blade Runner,” where characters use pupillometry to distinguish between humans and androids, this real-world research measures changes in pupil size to investigate underlying personality characteristics. The study was published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology.
“Phasic pupil dilation (i.e., stimulus-evoked fluctuation in pupil size) is a sensitive marker of several neurocognitive processes, especially orienting/directed attention and emotional arousal (probably due to a strong link between the brain’s noradrenergic system, responsible for regulating vigilance and alertness, and the autonomic nervous system),” explained study author Johannes B. Finke, a senior lecturer at the University of Siegen.
“Previous research has suggested that altered processing of social information, e.g. in certain conditions such as autism, is indexed by diminished pupil dilation responses to such stimuli, highlighting its potential usefulness as a biomarker and/or diagnostic tool.
“Moreover, there is growing evidence, that different attachment styles are also characterized by specific attentional biases (e.g., more shallow processing of faces or attachment-related words, especially in a negative context, in people with avoidant attachment). However, little is (was) known regarding potential associations with pupil-size modulation (or other psychophysiological indices), which was our main reason for conducting this study.”
The current study included 37 participants, mostly young adults from the University of Trier and the University of Applied Sciences Trier. These participants were asked to view a variety of images while their pupil size was closely monitored using a video-based infrared eye-tracking device. The images included erotic couples, everyday couples, interpersonal violence, and nature objects.
The participants also completed a questionnaire that assessed their attachment styles, examining their levels of anxiety and avoidance in relationships. This information allowed the researchers to explore how different attachment patterns might influence the way people react to emotional stimuli.
People with avoidant attachment styles tend to be more independent and self-reliant. They might feel uncomfortable with too much emotional closeness and often prefer to keep their feelings to themselves. In relationships, they may downplay their emotional needs and value their autonomy.
On the other hand, individuals with anxious attachment styles often crave emotional intimacy and reassurance from their partners. They may worry about their relationships and fear abandonment, sometimes becoming overly dependent on their partners for emotional support.
For those with avoidant attachment styles, the researchers observed that their pupils showed a reduced response to social stimuli. This suggests that individuals with these attachment styles might habitually suppress their emotional reactions, especially when faced with potentially distressing social situations, such as violence.
“Cognitive biases that result from different attachment experiences (or variation in personality traits) may be assessed at an implicit level, using the pupil as ‘the mind’s eye’ or a ‘window into the brain,'” Finke told PsyPost. “If you prefer a pop-cultural reference, this is roughly similar to the use of pupillometry in the well-known sci-fi movie Blade Runner for assessing emotional/empathetic responses (in order to identify replicants vs. humans).”
However, the study didn’t reveal significant differences for those with anxious attachment patterns. While there were some hints of increased attention to negative images, it didn’t reach statistical significance.
Notably, when it came to erotic images, attachment patterns didn’t play a significant role in influencing pupil reactions. This finding suggests that sexual content might evoke strong emotional responses in most individuals, regardless of their attachment styles.
“We found significant associations of pupil dilation to pictures with social content (using nature pictures as control) only with avoidant, but not anxious, attachment,” Finke said. “That is, contrary to expectations, higher levels of attachment anxiety were not linked to increased pupillary responses to scenes of violence, etc. By contrast, the higher a participant’s level of attachment avoidance, the smaller his or her response to social content in general (with the exception of erotica).”
While this study offers exciting insights into the relationship between attachment patterns and emotional processing, it’s important to note that the research had a few limitations. The sample size was relatively small, and the participants were mostly young adults. Future studies with larger and more diverse samples could help confirm and expand upon these findings.
“Because of the time-expensive assessments in the lab, the sample size was quite small for an individual-differences study,” Finke told PsyPost. “Also, the participants were relatively young on average and mostly healthy, which limits the generalizability of the findings to other (e.g. older and/or clinical) populations. Since the assessment of attachment patterns relied on self-report (validated questionnaires), we can not be absolutely certain that the participants’ behavior in everyday life matches their self-description.”
“Moreover, a longitudinal approach (i.e., repeated measurements over a longer period of time) would be beneficial in order to corroborate the assumption of a causal link between these constructs as well as the potential predictive validity of pupillary response for actual behavior.
“Of note: No gender differences at all emerged,” Finke added. “As in previous research, all participants responded most strongly to sexual content, which is in line with the notion that pupil size is also a reliable marker of sexual interest.”
The study, “Close(d) to you? Avoidant attachment is associated with attenuated pupil responsivity to social stimuli“, was authored by Johannes B. Finke, Kim D. Opdensteinen, Tim Klucken, and Hartmut Schachinger.