A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences suggests that the attachment style a person develops in infancy may inform their reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers found that people with anxious attachment styles showed greater COVID-19 distress.
Researchers have long described a parallel between the infant-caregiver bond and attachment in adult relationships. It has been said that both attachment in infancy and attachment in adulthood can be classified into different styles. A person’s attachment style can be measured based on their attitudes about relationships, including worries about rejection (anxious attachment) and feelings of closeness and dependency toward others (secure attachment).
Early attachment styles have been found to have an impact in later life, with anxious attachment being linked to psychological issues and secure attachment serving as a protective factor. Moreover, attachment anxiety has been found to be a predictor of a person’s anxiety surrounding their health.
Study authors Seth. A. Wagerman and his team were motivated to explore whether attachment anxiety would be related to increased distress during the pandemic. “Under current conditions – with many people sheltering in place, their homes becoming safe havens for them – we have an opportunity to see attachment anxiety at play during an unusually stressful situation,” the authors say. “A person’s home might be viewed as a psychological and emotional “safe space” similar to the cloth mother in Harlow’s (1958) classic study. Those with an anxious attachment style may then experience increased distress when leaving and exploring the novel and dangerous world outside.”
To explore this, Wagerman and his colleagues recruited 355 participants for an online survey in May 2020. The respondents were recruited from three different sources — Mechanical Turk workers, through social media networking, and through local ListServs. The surveys included measures of personality, attachment style, political ideology, and health anxiety. They also included questions assessing social, political, and psychological attitudes toward COVID-19.
COVID Distress was assessed with two items concerning anxiety about one’s housemate leaving the home (e.g., “When my partner/roommate/family member leaves the home and returns, it makes me feel anxious.”). COVID Gravity was measured with items assessing the seriousness with which a person views the pandemic (e.g., “This pandemic is a serious threat.”). Political COVID Outlook measured political attitudes related to the pandemic (e.g. “The government is handling the pandemic well.”).
Of the three samples, two of them showed that anxious attachment, health anxiety, political ideology, and neuroticism were significantly related to COVID Distress. When isolating the predictive effects of anxious attachment, the researchers found that anxious attachment predicted COVID Distress, above and beyond the other variables. “The first relationships we develop continue to be demonstrated as fundamental ones in terms of adult behavior, and specifically so in regards to feelings of safety and security in the face of this global pandemic,” the researchers infer.
Interestingly, political ideology was also linked to the respondents’ reactions to the pandemic. Among all three samples, the more conservative a respondent was, the higher they scored on the measure of Political COVID Outlook, suggesting a greater trust in the government’s handling of the pandemic. Also, the more conservative a respondent, the lower their score for COVID Gravity, suggesting a reduced concern toward the pandemic.
Overall, Wagerman and colleagues say their findings regarding attachment fall in line with previous research that shows that attachment anxiety is linked to elevated perceptions of stress and greater reactivity to stress. The researchers say that interventions aimed at helping people form healthy attachment bonds may benefit those suffering from COVID-19-related distress.
The authors address the limitation that all three samples were self-selected and not random. The ListServ sample, in particular, was largely made up of highly educated individuals, many of whom were psychologists. As the authors note, a more diverse sample would be beneficial for future research.
The study, “Psychodynamic and sociopolitical predictors of COVID Distress and Gravity”, was authored by Seth A. Wagerman, Alique Bedikian, and Benjamin S. Ross.