Attachment Theory is not the Root

by Syed Hussain Ather

Graphic design by Joshua Koentjoro

Are you “anxious”? “Secure”? “Avoidant”? Or perhaps, “none of these are accurate”? Across social media, these attachment styles have grown in popularity. People have found themselves defining and declaring into these neat categories, labeling, and providing them with a sense of identity and self – as well as a connectedness to others. The “anxious” person may find themselves avoiding others in times of stress or being afraid or sensitive to rejection. Similarly, people with “avoidant” attachment styles may also avoid intimacy. Someone who’s “secure” doesn’t have these fears, and they, instead, appreciate their self-worth wholly independent of others. But are these broad, sweeping categories truly effective – or even scientifically valid – ways of looking at the ways we interact with others? 

Since it was formulated in 1958,1 attachment theory has grown from a single theory describing behaviors, habits, and tendencies that arise from children in their relational attachment to their caregivers. When the British psychologist John Bowlby formulated the theory, he sought to study how these early-life relationships of a growing child would set the basis for these tendencies with the rest of the world. Alongside American-Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth, Bowlby described three types of attachment styles between mothers and infants: anxious, avoidant, and secure. As time went on, more categories were added with increasing complexity, including “anxious avoidant” and “disorganized.” These labels were meant to describe how, when observing the relationship between the child and their caregiver, the relational styles and ways in which the child would view their caregiver served as the basis for how the child would see other people in the world.  It’s been shown that children with “secure” attachment styles had higher abilities to understand other people and their states of mind.2 Some argue other cognitive and psychological capacities are rooted in these relationships too. Our capacity to empathize with one another, for example, could come from how close and secure our history of attachment is with parental figures from our upbringing.3 Right off the bat, many of the initial studies came with limitations from the point of view of scientific inquiry. These studies have not been replicated to establish their credibility and reliability as thoroughly as needed. 

“..the relational styles and ways in which the child would view their caregiver served as the basis for how the child would see other people in the world.”

In the 1980s, researchers expanded the use of attachment theory to relationships,4 and, in turn, hopefully, attachment theory would expand to explain how individuals end up behind bars or unemployed. By the early 2000s, the field became known as “Modern Attachment Theory,” or “Contemporary Attachment Theory,” and much of the work shifted from Bowlby’s original focus on infant-mother relations to romantic relations. Here came works like, “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find–and Keep–Love” by neuroscientist Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel Heller. And, with this, popularity took over scientific validity. 

“Which style are you?” Everyone wanted to know. Those who were “anxious” would get mixed messages from their caregivers. Sometimes they’d be met with positivity and other times they’d be pushed away. They would grow up worried that their relationships would end poorly. They had to be wary and cautious of sabotaging or worrying too much, lest they’d be met with the same fate as how their parents treated them. “Avoidants” feared intimacy and commitment and would lash out at people who would try to get close. And those who were “disorganized” would feel or believe they didn’t deserve love or closeness at all. 

Despite there being scientific evidence that an individual’s attachment style with their caregivers doesn’t align with their attachment style with their romantic partners,5,6 these categories have caught on with the public. Some raised their eyebrows. It’s been noted and questioned whether the categories of attachment theory line up with true ways of categorizing individuals and their personality traits or what the true mechanisms of attachment might be.7 The styles themselves (including “secure” and “anxious”) were, more or less, made up to match and fit observation with some sort of neat set of categories. Other points of criticism have been raised, including how universal attachment style categories are when studies seem to be based on Western, middle-class perspectives of the world.8  

“The styles themselves … were , more or less, made up to match and fit observation with some sort of neat set of categories”

What hope is there for attachment theory? We should continue to explore how our upbringing and environment have given rise to patterns in thoughts, emotions, and behavior. The way one’s past shapes personality is key and central to many theories in psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science. But attachment theory has strong limits that shouldn’t be crossed, otherwise, we’re doomed to anxiously wait for the approval of weak science.