As portrayed by a recent Oscar-nominated film, Aron Ralston is a man defined by his independence. His passion is in exploring new and challenging terrain, and his pride is in accomplishing his feats completely solo. Yet when Aron finds himself in a situation that is unavoidably distressing (becoming trapped under a rock with little food and water), his permeating thoughts are not about his independent experiences or ambitions, but rather his relationships with the close people in his life.
According to social psychological research and theory, there’s a very good reason why Aron did not spend his hours in the cave contemplating how he never got to see the Great Wall of China or what would become of his coin collection. When a person encounters a threatening situation – either psychologically or physically– it activates an evolutionarily-based, biological drive called the attachment system.1 The purpose of the attachment system is to help us maintain close, supportive relationships with significant others, or “attachment figures”. When nothing distressing is going on, our attachment figures sort of rest in the back of our minds: we can feel free to pursue our goals, knowing that the people close to us are quietly cheering us on. However, whenever we feel distressed or overwhelmed, the attachment system is activated, which creates a strong desire to return to an attachment figure for comfort and safety. In fact, one of the determinants of how happy someone is in a romantic relationship is the extent to which their partner fulfills these two roles. A really good romantic partner can be an encouraging “secure base” from which to explore when everything is going well,2 but also a reassuring “safe haven” to return to when things are going badly.3
For single people, the primary attachment figure is often a parent, whereas people in romantic relationships gradually come to rely on their romantic partners. It also takes a long time for the bonds of attachment to loosen.4 Aron likely still felt some attachment to his most recent ex-partner, which may be why his thoughts often returned to her throughout the film. However, the ex-girlfriend did not appear to serve as a very effective secure base, nor as a safe haven: many of Aron’s thoughts depicted her as negative and critical. The flashbacks made it clear that it was Aron’s parents who he relied on the most. And even though it wasn’t possible for Aron to physically reach them during his distressing ordeal, thinking about their support likely provided him with a lot of the inner strength that he needed to get out of the cave alive. Overall, this film nicely exemplifies what attachment theory is all about: it would seem that even someone as independent as Aron Ralston needs an attachment figure to turn to when caught between a rock and a hard place.
1Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York: Guildford Press.
2Feeney, B. C., & Thrush, R. L. (2010). Relationship influences on exploration in adulthood: The characteristics and function of a secure base. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 51-76.
3Collins, N. L., & Feeney, B. C. (2001). A safe haven: An attachment theory perspective on support seeking and caregiving in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 1053-1073.
4Spielmann, S. S., MacDonald, G., & Wilson, A. E. (2009). On the rebound: Focusing on someone new helps anxiously attached individuals let go of ex-partners. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1382-1394.
Samantha Joel – Science of Relationships articles
Samantha’s research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner?